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).
The teenage brain is rather different to the adult brain: https://www.aacap.org/aacap/families_and_youth/facts_for_families/fff-guide/the-teen-brain-behavior-problem-solving-and-decision-making-095.aspx
Perhaps that is not enough – and I would favour municipal voting for children but as a general rule it does mark a difference.
Thanks, David, for this.
Yes, I would definitely not disagree with you in the differences between adolescent and adult cognitive development in the respects mentioned in the link you posted. Neuroscientists seem to be in agreement that, when it comes to making decisions in the moment , without time to reflect and rationalise, adolescents do show relevant shortcomings, and an inclination to act emotionally (what is called “hot cognition”). However, when given time to reflect and rationalise on the decisions they have make, no relevant differences have been found between and an adult and an adolescent’s reasoning and decision-making processes (what’s called “cold cognition”). I believe that the latter is the relevant case when it comes to evaluating voting capacities.
Thanks for response. You may be right, although I am less sure than you about the hot/cold distinction in contexts of election campaigns in highly polarised contexts, hence my preference for having earlier ages voting in municipal elections prior and building up political habits and skills (e.g., spotting lying bastards). Having said that, my daughter has been furious from at leats the age of 10 that she is not allowed to vote!
Thanks again, David! That is indeed a good way to go. I think that constructing it as a system in which voting is expanded on different levels at different ages may work very well. Tell your daughter that she has people that support her anger!
Thanks for this great post and sorry for the late reaction! I’m in sympathy with your agreement, but what about the following objection:
“We believe that a minimum threshold of capacity is necessary. We agree that age is only a very rough proxy for capacity. Yet we want to avoid making invidious comparisons between citizens and singling out the least capable. The age threshold is a way of filtering out some individuals who are not capable without harming (too much) people’s self-respect, so it’s an acceptable proxy even if very imperfect.”
Thanks so much for your comment, P-E!
Regarding your objection: If we do believe that a capacity threshold is necessary for voting, and we are able to devise one that is fair and unbiased (which I think is very very difficult), then there should be no harm to self-respect in putting this threshold into practice. Take the example of a driver’s or a pilot’s license. Having the license to drive a car or to fly a plane requires having a threshold capacity to carry out these actions well. Do I lose self-respect because I do not reach these threshold capacities? I don’t think so. I may have to work hard in order to learn the capacities required, but if I really want to drive or fly, this is what I must do.
I think there is no difference between this and the license to vote (if we do indeed believe that it requires a threshold capacity). However, if you feel that the problem of self-respect still stands, I would consider then eliminating capacity thresholds all together and stick with universal (truly universal) enfranchisement.
I do believe that there is a difference. Voting is not like a professional ability; it’s simply about promoting one’s political preferences. Telling someone that s/he is not able to promote his/her preferences is quite harmful to that person’s self-respect – unless the message is that we are all unable to do it until a certain age.
However, I think a flaw emerges when we consider what else would have to be considered a right for children of all ages when we say voting is their right. How then do we justify parents making medical decisions, mandatory schooling until a certain age, the responsibility of the government/parents to house and feed children, different penal laws for children versus adults, children not paying taxes, laws against child labor, etc.
Adults are allowed to vote despite lack of many qualities we may desire in a voting populace, because (ideally, and I admit, the reality does not match this) the government and society have done all they can to form citizens into knowledgeable critical thinkers capable of participating in the political process. At some point, we assume being uneducated and uninterested is just the personal choice an adult has made, whereas the 6 year old simply has not usually had enough time, education, and mental capacity to grow into a responsible citizen yet.
I found this helpful, thanks!
Interesting. However, a newborn baby simply cannot vote or even understand the concept.
How would it work in practice?
I think a reasonable compromise would be to lower progressively the voting minimal age, down to 10.
> I think that constructing it as a system in which voting is expanded on different levels at different ages may work very well.
Very interesting idea. However, one could argue that children have more stake in global issues than local ones, as they will affect them for a lot longer. And their view is usually very moral and direct, with a lot less bias than adults, who have built progressively their tolerance to war, famine and injustice.
I think than counter-intuitively, global issues are sometimes simpler than local ones.
I’m ten years old
Me and all my friends are able to process all of those things
Me and my friends are more mature then most kids at school it’s just so hard to watch how Immature the other kids our age are
Kids at the age of 12 or 11 or 10 Might be a good age to vote at
The world needs kids right now the ones who actually care about the future of our world
The kids need a voice
Camdin M. R. Smith
I do agree with you in many ways, but as a fellow adolescent I think it should bee understood that many kids can be manipulated by adults, parents can bribe their children to vote for what the parents want, and most kids don’t have the understanding of politics to be able to make the right decision based on their own beliefs. Because of this it would be too hard to track down minors who have a good knowledge of politics and will vote on behalf of themselves would be much to tedious of a task. For these reasons I truly don’t belive that allowing adolescents to vote is a good idea.
I’m11 and am part of the minority that will vote on there own behalf . In the student vote a program where schools do there own election the same as a current election going on at the time so that kids can learn to vote. We were given reliable sources and formed my own opinion. I maked sure to listen to what the politics said and picked the one I I wanted to be in, the NDP. It was the same as my parents but it Wasn’t because my parents voted for them it’s because I liked what they where going to do best.
Thank you, Eric, for sharing this experience! I am glad to hear that your school is promoting democratic values to its students, and I am also glad to know that you took this responsibility seriously, listened to the different opinions and formed your own position based on your reflection on the subject. I hope the NDP did well in the elections!
I think you raise an important point, Camdin. There is a big threat that kids may be manipulated by adults, and this could lead to their voting decisions being taken by parents and not by children.
But, don’t you think that this is a problem that affects adults as well? Many adults do not vote thinking and reflecting on what is on their best interest. They sometimes let empty lies and promises to blind them from reality. Does this mean we shouldn’t allow some adults to vote either?
What do you think?
Yes I agree and I think children shoud vote but only on the laws or things that affect them as sort of training wheels
Thanks so much for sharing your opinion and your views.
I agree with you that the world needs kids right now, and that we should definitely give them a voice in order to protect their future.
I’m 7, turning 8 and I think that I should be able to vote. I don’t want to wait 11 more years!
Thank you, Giordano! I agree with you. Let’s hope that in your country they lower the age so that you can vote soon.
kids should not vote and that is what i think and if you think diffrent that is fine. I think kids should not vote because they would not know what they are doing so hope you liked it bye
I’ve also been thinking that every human needs to be given the right to vote at birth.
How about if they are under the age of majority in their country, we leave it up to their legal guardian to decide how the vote is cast? There’s potential for abuse of course but most times, hopefully there will be age appropriate discussion and the child’s interests and desires will be reflected in how the vote is cast.
Thank you for this wonderful article. I am 12 and have been thinking all of these same things. We need to address the fact the kids have as much (If not more) of a right to vote and have a say in government than adults. Some people believe that kids do not have the ability to make informed choices about the world, yet many adults voted for Trump, so what does that say about the adult electorate? I agree that kids will be heavily influenced by there parents, but isn’t an influenced right to vote better than no vote at all? I response to this influencing (And possibly bribes or force) we need to take away much power adults have over children. I’m not a crazy anarchist, but I thing that the more power we give to kids the better kids will be when they are adults.
Thanks to you for your comment. I agree entirely with both your claims. First, that adults probably aren’t as wise political actors as is assumed, and, second, that the fact that children may be influenced is not as harmful as not having any political power at all. I believe you are right, one does not have to be a crazy anarchist to endorse such a position. In my view, it is a matter of equal respect and justice.
I am writing an argumentative essay for my 6th grade ELA and I decided to pick this topic. Yes, children before they reach their adolescence, should not be allowed to vote, but 15 and 16-year-olds are greatly affected by the president’s decisions too. We should give them a voice for their country to hear. We should give them a chance for everybody to know their opinion as well.
Thanks for your comment, and hope it went well with your argumentative essay. Hope this brief reflection was useful.
Definitely an interesting perspective on whether children should be allowed to vote. I think the development of a child’s brain happens over time, and definitely not at a very young age. At a young age, the synapses of the brain are still connecting to perform efficiently. At this age, children are very much “impressionable”. If given the right to vote at this age, it might hamper their choices in the future as well. The Universal Adult Franchise of voting only when above 18 years of age, is to give ample enough time for a person to understand his/her political and social surroundings. Those who claim they are mature enough at a young age, have not seen the social problems. You have not walked along the street and seen a naked child asking for alms. If you have, you have not understood the gravity of the situation. I re-iterate, the Universal Adult Franchise is not to signify the limitations that children may have as compared to adults, it is simply to give them enough time to take cognizance of their surroundings.
I am 4 years old and believe it to be morally unjustifiable to implement restricted suffrage on age alone. Piaget’s theory of cognitive development suggests that the formal operation stage begins at 12 and with the prevention of children voting it creates a disproportionate voting population skew. This skew can impact decision making on climate action and education reform with the voting base not acting in the whole populations best interests. Excited to discuss alternative view points when I begin school next year. – Charlie
Well then, what do we have here? A call for a voting referendum to include kids? As with all articles about this particular pipe dream, it does not go into details at all.
First off the basics:
Define child who can vote. Can newborns vote? If not, why not? You said yourself “the absence of an equal standard to judge children and adults’ rights.”
So can newborns vote? Or is there an absence of an equal standard between a newborn or 4 -year old?
From here it gets tricky. If under your system a newborn cannot vote, what method do you use to measure the capacity to vote? How do you define that a newborn cannot vote but a 4 year old can? Or will you have a blanket ban of “if you’re under X years of age you cannot vote”? Tsk tsk, that sounds a lot like current system but just with changed age restriction. Sounds like there is an abscence of an equal standard to judge.