The Canadian Green Party didn't win a single seat in yesterday's election, but Green Party leader Elizabeth May made a very interesting comment:
"It's obviously a disappointment," she told reporters before heading off to console her own supporters with an upbeat speech. "We ran an exuberant and joyful campaign. If kids five years and up could have voted, I would have won by a landslide," declared Ms. May, who lost by several thousand votes.
May probably didn't mean to seriously suggest that children should have the right to vote. But I'm not convinced that it would be such a terrible idea. The main objection to giving children the vote is that they lack the knowledge to make informed choices. Of course the same is true of most of the adult electorate, who are rationally ignorant about politics and public policy, and often don't know even very basic facts. Nonetheless, it's probably true that the average child knows a lot less about politics than the average adult, and that may be a good reason to deny most children the franchise. But why deny it to all of them? If a minor can pass a test of basic political knowledge (say, the political knowledge equivalent of the citizenship test administered to immigrants seeking naturalization), why shouldn't he or she have the right to vote? Such a precocious child-voter would probably be more knowledgeable than the majority of the adult population. Giving her the right to vote would actually increase the average knowledge level of the electorate and thereby slightly improve the quality of political decision-making. I've met twelve-year-olds with far higher levels of political knowledge than that of the average adult. You probably have too.
Once the knowledge objection is off the table, all the arguments for giving adults the right to vote also apply to sufficiently knowledgeable children. Like the adults, children have a claim to the franchise because government policies affect them too, because otherwise their interests might be undervalued in the political process, because it affirms their status as citizens with equal rights, and so on.
Obviously, there might be some difficult administrative issues. For example, we might not trust the government to put together an adequate knowledge test. But I don't see any principled reason to deny the franchise to children whose political knowledge is greater than that of most adult voters.
Some people might worry that even knowledgeable child-voters will be "unduly" influenced by their parents' preferences. Given the existence of the secret ballot, I doubt that this would be a major problem. Moreover, children who are knowledgeable enough to pass the test and interested enough to take it will probably have at least some political ideas of their own that aren't easily susceptible to parental suasion. In any event, I'm not sure that the possibility of parental persuasion would necessarily be a bad thing. The objection is in fact similar to one of the arguments once raised against giving women the right to vote - that they would be unduly influenced by their husbands or fathers. Husbands will often influence the views of their wives (and vice versa); similarly, parents will influence those of their children. That doesn't by itself justify denying either married people or children the right to vote.
UPDATE: Some commenters note that children might lack maturity or life experience, as well as knowledge. Obviously they do lack it. I'm just not convinced that either is tremendously useful for voting. Most voting decisions have to do with complex, large-scale policy issues that can't easily be weighed based on personal experience. Realistically, even most adults have little life experience that is directly useful in assessing difficult policy issues. I discuss the limited utility of personal life experience to voting decisions in this paper (pp. 9-10). At the very least, it seems to me that superior knowledge might well outweigh inferior maturity and life experience. And I'm only advocating giving the franchise to children who can demonstrate knowledge levels superior to those of the average adult voter.
UPDATE #2: Various commenters cite the value for voting of such "adult" experiences as holding a job, paying taxes, owning property, and so on. For reasons noted in the first update, I'm skeptical that these experiences greatly improve the quality of voting decisions. Even more to the point, however, we don't exclude from the franchise the many adults who lack some or all of these experiences - even if they are also ignorant of even the most basic political knowledge. If lack of life experience is not enough to justify exclusion of even the most ignorant adults from the franchise, I don't see why it should be considered sufficient to exclude vastly more knowledgeable minors.
UPDATE #3: For a more thoroughgoing argument for giving children the vote (in this case all children), see here. I disagree with some of the points, but the author does do a good job of knocking down some of the standard arguments against letting minors vote.