The debate on lowering the age of enfranchisement has become a hot topic during the last couple of decades. Countries like Argentina, Austria, Brazil or Scotland, for example, have lowered their voting age to 16. Many others, such as Estonia, Malta or some German Landen, have lowered it for local elections. Arguing for the need to enfranchise 16- and 17-years old seems like a very reasonable claim. Recent research on adolescent brain development has shown that a 16-year-old has the same abilities for cold cognition as any adult. Thus, adolescents are equally equipped to make an informed choice when voting. Why, then, would it be justified to limit their rights as political citizens just because of their age?
I think few would disagree with the arguments in favour of a 16-year-old’s right to vote. But what if we go a bit further, and were to abolish age-thresholds for enfranchisement altogether? Is it such an absurd idea to claim that a 6-year-old should be allowed to vote, as David Runciman argues? What reasons do we have to justify her exclusion? And, what are the reasons for claiming that she should have this right ensured?
Arguments Against Child Enfranchisement
Four arguments are generally given against child enfranchisement:
- Lack of Capacity: Voting and being a part of the democratic process requires the acquisition of certain reasoning and deliberating abilities beyond a child’s reach. Children (especially before adolescence) do not have the cognitive capacities needed to vote. They don’t know what they want, and they cannot understand what is in their best interests. Thus, they should not be allowed to make choices of which they do not understand the consequences.
- Lack of Experience: Even if children have cognitive capacities, this is not sufficient to make an informed choice when voting. Many children and teens may have the capacities needed to vote but they have not acquired the life experience, the social and political contact needed to make informed decisions. Children have not had enough contact with the problems of their society (and potential solutions to them) to make an informed choice regarding who should govern it and how. Its absence justifies their exclusion.
- Easily Manipulated: Children are highly impressionable. Their respect for authority figures (their parents, teachers or the media, for example) affect greatly how they act and what they think. This, it is argued, questions their ability to make autonomous choices when voting, even if they do have the capacity to do so. Allowing them to vote would not empower them as democratic citizens, but would actually give more power to other adults by using the child’s vote to their advantage.
- Harm to Democracy: Enfranchising children would harm the democratic process and its outcomes in various ways. First, it would trivialise political campaigns by forcing candidates to appeal to the child vote through banal promises, shifting the political debate to attract children’s interests and whims. Second, the fact that children below 14-years-old are on average 25% of a country’s population would lead to them having too much weight on electoral results, threatening the protection of the interests of the rest of the population.
Applying an Equal Standard
There are many flaws and issues with the arguments above. However, one stands out as particularly problematic: the absence of an equal standard to judge children and adults’ rights. The four arguments presented above against child enfranchisement are not exclusive to children and would work against the right to vote for an ample part of the adult population as well. Many adults would most surely prove to not have the capacities required to vote (if the same conditions were to be imposed on them as on children), they can be as misinformed of (or turn a blind eye to) their candidates proposals and behaviour, they are as influenced and manipulated by the (social) media, by singers and movie stars in their political choices, and their uninformed interests can trivialise the democratic process with absurd proposals as well (think of Donald Trump’s Space Force or Build the Wall campaigns).
Why don’t we assess an adult’s right to vote with the same strict standards that we impose on children? I’m sure that if we applied the same ruler to both groups, many of us, adults, would lose our entitlement, while many of our children would have to be enfranchised. If this is indeed the case, disenfranchisement of children as a group is unjust; it would be (and, I argue, is) a discriminatory practice based on age-based biases and stereotypes that does not respect children as equal members in our society.
If the four arguments above are indeed valid for restricting an individual’s right to vote, then they should be, at least, applied and assessed equally to every citizen’s entitlement. The twentieth century showed that we could defeat many discriminatory biases in voting rights based on gender or race; the twenty-first century may be the one in which we overcome those of age.
Why Should Children (and Everyone) Vote?
I’ve said that if we consider the arguments of incapacity, inexperience, manipulation and harm as valid for disenfranchisement, then they should apply equally to the whole citizenry and not only to children. However, I want to close by refuting the validity of these four arguments, and by defending that none of them justify disenfranchising citizens (whatever their age or condition may be).
First of all, political participation is a human right, not a licence. To respect individuals as right holders, implies recognising them as equal members in our society, regardless of their condition or (in)capacities. This recognition requires taking every individual’s epistemic standpoint as equal in the democratic process. It does not matter whether you are a professor of democratic theory, a potato farmer, or a primary-school student; we are all stakeholders in our government’s decisions, and we all have a right to have a say and a vote on what our government does.
Second, ensuring everyone’s right to vote offers an invaluable expansion of the scope of views and issues present in the democratic process. Limiting children’s enfranchisement gives asymmetric power to older generations over the issues and views that are debated in political campaigns. For example, child enfranchisement would force politicians to appeal to younger people’s views on gun control, climate change or Brexit. Children have their own take on our current political climate, and the fact that they will be affected by their government’s decisions demands them having their say.
Finally, being involved in the political process has an important pedagogical dimension. As the pedagogue and philosopher John Dewey argued, we learn our political and social skills through our experience and involvement in political and social processes. Cognitive development does not bestow us with immediate powers to reason, socialise and inform ourselves; these require motivation and interest in politics, and the recognition of our position in our social world. By enfranchising children, we foster their interest in the political process, in thinking about their position, views and interests, and in gaining experience as democratic citizens.
To close, there is no argument that justifies restricting a child’s right to vote which would not apply equally to many adult citizens. If we are committed to equality and non-discrimination, we have two options regarding child enfranchisement:
- We agree with the arguments above, and apply an equal standard for assessing each individual’s right to vote, regardless of age. This would imply that children and adults alike must prove their entitlement to vote based on their capacities to do so.
- We disagree with the arguments above and enfranchise the whole citizenry, regardless of age. This would imply that no one, regardless of their condition or (in)capacities should have her right to vote restricted. Whether she wishes to vote or not, is up to her.
Of course, the questions and issues that stem from the debate are much more complex that this short post allows me to show. I hope, however, that this brief reflection sparks and presses our intuitions regarding children’s right to vote.
The author would like to acknowledge the financial support of the Grant Agency of the Czech Academy of Sciences through a project on ‘ Taking age discrimination seriously ’ (grant ID: 17 – 26629S) awarded to the Institute of State and Law of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Centre for Law and Public Affairs (CeLAPA), created under subsidies for a long-term conceptual development (RVO: 68378122).