In just over a year, American citizens will have a chance to cast their ballot for the next president. Except for the 75 million Americans barred by state and local laws from registering to vote, that is.
Are there really that many American citizens legally barred from voting? The answer is yes: our kids.
Around the world, almost every country bars people under 18 from voting. The reasons vary — they won’t be informed enough, they don’t pay taxes yet, they can’t serve in the military yet, they tend too liberal, they tend too rebellious — but the rule persists, even in the face of a generation of passionate, smart, and informed teenage activists, and even as it becomes obvious that our current political system is failing our children.
In the last year, there’ve been encouraging signs that we might rethink this. Democratic candidate Andrew Yang has argued for a voting age of 16, and a bill proposing a voting age of 16 died in the US House in March with a majority of Democratic representatives supporting it.
Well, let’s do them one better: The United States should consider eradicating the voting age entirely and letting every American citizen who can successfully fill out a ballot be counted in our local, state, and national elections (and yes, this goes for felons too).
My colleague Matt Yglesias made the case for this four years ago. Since then, it’s only become more apparent that our current system is failing kids — and that they’re competent to fight for a better one.
Enfranchising the last 75 million American citizens is the right thing to do, and there’s some evidence suggesting it’ll lead to a more engaged, more informed electorate that can at last do right by some of its most vulnerable constituents.
The expanding voting-rights circle
American democracy got off to a rough start. At first, the vote was only extended to white land-owning men. Gradually, property requirements to vote were abolished, and then, with the Civil War, racial restrictions were struck from the books (though still enforced in practice). It was not until 1920 that the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote, and not until the Civil Rights Movement that many black Americans could meaningfully exercise their voting rights.
Many of these expansions of voting rights were bitterly opposed at the time. In hindsight, they are all clearly moral and necessary.
Decreasing the voting age to let more of our citizens have a vote isn’t a new idea. We’ve actually lowered the voting age before without any problems. The voting age in the United States was 21 for most of our history. By 1968, several states had lowered it to 18, 19, or 20, and in 1971 the 26th Amendment prohibited any state from setting the voting age higher than 18.
States may still set the voting age lower than 18 for state or local elections, and a few cities have taken steps in that direction: Takoma Park, Hyattsville, and Greenbelt in Maryland have lowered their voting age to 16, and Berkeley, California lets 16-year-olds vote in school board elections. Eighteen is the most common voting age elsewhere in the world, too, but a few countries — including Brazil and Austria — permit 16-year-olds to vote, and until 2007 the voting age in Iran was 15.
Each of these decreases in the voting age may have been controversial at the time, but they’re uncontroversial in hindsight. Virtually no one wants to go back to denying 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds the vote.
4 reasons why we need to get rid of the voting age
There are a host of good reasons to give children the vote. Here are four I want to highlight:
1) The whole concept of a voting age is kinda unprincipled
The US Constitution holds that the right to vote cannot be abridged on the basis of race, color, previous condition of servitude, sex, or age … if you’re older than 18. It’s an awkward exception we’ve carved out to the admirable general principle that just government requires fair and free elections in which everyone can participate.
We are signatories to the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which demands that elections be held “by universal and equal suffrage.” We (and pretty much every other country) fall short of that in a lot of ways, but the 75 million Americans denied the right to vote because they are younger than 18 are definitely the largest group of people systematically excluded from the franchise.
The arguments against universal suffrage have taken a few forms. When women wanted the vote, for example, people argued that they weren’t as educated as men, weren’t as smart, and wouldn’t vote as well. They also argued that they’d just vote however their husbands told them, so there was no need for them to vote.
All of these arguments turned out to be false, but they’d be objectionable even if they were true. We’re founded on the principle that people, as people, deserve a voice in their government. What universal suffrage aspires to is a society where you get a voice not because you’re a member of the right group or rich enough or worthy enough, but just because you’re a person and a member of this society with a stake in its future.
So while I’d be happy about the voting age being lowered to 16 as Yang proposes, and such a plan is far more realistic than mine, it still falls short of our obligations to our fellow citizens. The most principled democratic stance is that suffrage should be universal.
2) The case for democracy can’t rest on voters being rational informed agents. Indeed, there’s a strong case for democracy that doesn’t.
Research suggests that voters are not very informed. They don’t know the differences between candidate policy positions. They don’t even know what the executive can and can’t do. They don’t reliably vote for the candidate who they agree with more on the issues.
Does that mean that democracy is a failed experiment? Not at all. Democratic societies work surprisingly well, considering that voters don’t seem very informed. They are more peaceful than non-democratic societies, have better human rights records and stronger economies, and they are more likely to protect the environment. So somehow, this system — for all its frequent and costly flaws — does, actually, do better than any other system of government. The secret sauce of democracy must be something other than “informed voters rationally selecting the candidates most aligned with their nuanced policy views.”
So, will adding some less-informed voters make democracy fall apart? Not likely. First, there are a lot more adults than kids — you can’t get elected just by carrying the kid demographic.
Second, a lot of people underestimate how informed kids can be. Like, I’m fairly embarrassed by the formulaic writing and lack of nuance in this 11-page essay on the New Deal and how it transformed the role of government that I wrote for the History Day competition when I was 12. But I think the person who wrote it would’ve been a pretty responsible voter, or at least no less capable than the average citizen. (And I don’t think I was unique, either, except in the educational opportunities I had access to.)
Third, if you want more informed voters, giving kids the opportunity to vote will also likely give them more motivation to learn about politics and engage seriously with it. In the long run, I’d expect that an electorate that nourishes its youngest participants ends up more informed.
3) Voting as kids will turn young people into better citizens and likely increase participation their whole lives
Young adults don’t vote much. Some researchers have looked into why not and found a mundane explanation: They lead unstable lives that our voting system accounts for poorly. Many young adults are in short-term housing situations, off at college or trade school, or in a first job or apartment. They are disproportionately more likely to move, and to not know where their polling place is, and to not be sure if they’re registered to vote. Navigating that bureaucracy for the first time, when you’re also navigating your degree or first job, lease, student loan repayments, etc., is daunting. Lots of people don’t succeed.
Researchers have found that voter turnout is a habitual behavior: The best predictor of whether you’ll do it in the future is whether you have a pattern of doing it. People who vote in the first three elections when they’re eligible will likely vote for the rest of their life. And the chaotic years from 18 to 21 are a terrible stage to acquire a new habitual behavior, because they’re full of so many life changes. If everyone registered to vote as kids and voted as kids, they’d have a decade or more of practice at their civic responsibility by age 18.
Realizing these benefits might require schools to actively work to help students register and, on the day of the election, helping them to vote. Schools are well-equipped to do that (many do it for fake mock elections in class anyway). But between schools and parents, children would have more supports in making it to the polls than young adults living alone in college or their first full-time jobs.
Lowering the voting age does seem to help (at least a little bit) to create a population of high-participation, civically engaged voters — or, at least, it did so when Austria tried it. In 2007 they became the first country in the EU to lower their voting age from 18 to 16. The 16- and 17-year-olds were more likely to turn out to vote than 18-21 year olds, and researchers found that they were no less informed and were as likely as older voters to make choices that reflected their values.
Takoma Park, Maryland, saw promising results too. Turnout among 16-17 year olds in the first city election after they were extended the franchise was nearly double turnout for voters 18 and up.
And research from Denmark suggests that parents whose children have a vote are themselves more likely to vote. The researchers studied this by comparing children who turned 18 just in time for the election to children who turned 18 a day too late. The parents of the newly minted voters were more likely to show up at the polls — likely because they wanted to take their child to the polls or model civic engagement.
Of course, this raises an important question: Did the last big change in voting age make our society more democratic? Someone who wanted to argue that the 26th Amendment strengthened our society might point out that there hasn’t been a wartime draft since, and that the socially liberal values younger people are more likely to hold have won some definitive cultural victories since then. But a critic could easily argue that our democracy doesn’t really seem to be stronger than ever and voter participation is no higher. On the whole, the evidence from the change in voting age from 21 to 18 is a mixed bag.
4) Kids have the same — or even a greater — stake in political issues that adults do
A frequent justification for denying kids the franchise is that voting should be attached to the obligations and responsibilities of citizenship. Kids mostly can’t open a bank account under their own name, work a job, or pay taxes. They can’t serve in the military. Therefore, they shouldn’t get to vote.
There’s a problem with this line of logic. First, it’s kind of perverse that the fact that kids are excluded from participation in many corners of society gets used as an excuse to exclude them from the civic sphere as well. Yes, kids typically can’t open bank accounts without their guardian’s approval. They can’t apply for benefits — even if they need them — and they don’t have the right to make many medical decisions for themselves.
That’s not a reason to give them even less of a voice in shaping the society that makes those decisions for them. Voting should not be a final responsibility you earn only once you’ve taken on all of the other responsibilities of society; it should be one of the first core rights you exercise as a member of society.
Second, kids shoulder the consequences of the decisions our politicians make. They’re the population most affected by food insecurity and by air pollution. In failing to address climate change, we’re damaging the world they will live in. We have made financial commitments that they’ll be on the hook to pay back, and we’ve started wars that they are only a few short years from being sent off to fight in. If you earn the right to vote alongside the burden of responsibility, we’ve burdened kids with responsibilities without extending the rights.
We typically don’t think about the fact that kids have very few rights as a moral issue. Why not? Perhaps because the people who are currently experiencing it get fewer platforms to talk about it, have less practice articulating their perspectives, and are stereotyped as bratty, entitled, and ignorant — especially if they complain about their lives. Perhaps that may be because we all lived through it and it can take time to notice that an experience that was universal in your life is actually harmful.
But the restrictions on the rights of children that are commonplace around the world often aren’t justified and often leave kids vulnerable. Giving them a vote would be a first step toward addressing that.
Two reasons why we shouldn’t do this, debunked
There’s a common counterargument to giving children the vote: Won’t a lot of parents use this to effectively just get their kids to vote the way they do? If their kid is going to vote for the “wrong” presidential campaign, won’t they scold or threaten them?
I think this will absolutely happen; it happens to adults. It happened to an adult friend of mine who turned 18 shortly before the 2016 election and whose parents bullied him into voting for their preferred candidate. It happens within marriages, too.
It’s obviously a problem when it happens, and in a world where kids voted, it would happen — no arguing that. But there’s something perverse about denying someone the right to vote to stop other people from denying them the right to vote.
And as my colleague Matt Yglesias argued, even if letting kids vote results in more influence for their parents, that doesn’t really seem like a terrible outcome: “A family of five contains more human beings than a family of two, so if the result of children voting were that the political system started giving more weight to the interests of five-person families than to the interests of two-person families, that would be a sensible outcome, not some shady sleight of hand.”
There’s another objection. Some people might say, “Okay, I’m with you for all of that, but surely kids younger than, say, 8, would just be filling in bubbles at random, right? Don’t we have to draw a line somewhere?”
As a political compromise, sure; a voting age of 12 might be more achievable than universal suffrage is. It is probably more pragmatic to draw a line somewhere. But I don’t think it’s necessary as a matter of principle. If everyone is allowed to vote, then very young kids will likely spoil their ballots (that is, they won’t be able to successfully indicate one and only one candidate for each office that they prefer, so their vote won’t be counted). At some point — a point that’s determined by the capabilities of each individual child — they’ll be able to fill out a ballot successfully. Of course, they should have access to the same accommodations as adults, like accessible voting machines with audio ballots if preferred.
I think this is more desirable than a law banning them from voting until they’re presumed competent to fill out a ballot. First, it’s fairer to young children who are capable of voting successfully; it doesn’t deny them rights because of the assumption they’re too unskilled to exercise them. Second, I think voting would be an exciting and meaningful exercise even for children too young to fill out their ballot validly, and it’s a great chance to develop the habit early — just like we have young children brush their teeth even though they’ll lose those teeth in a few years anyway.
I don’t expect that enfranchising all children will solve all our problems. There are some very real drawbacks here. I expect that enfranchising everyone will make the electorate less informed on average. I don’t have any idea whether it’d be a win for my preferred policies.
But I think the moral case for enfranchising children overwhelms these concerns. In a democracy, the default ought to be that the people can vote — even if we think they’re not very smart or not very informed or not worthy of the privilege. Much of the promise of democracy is that giving people power over their government is a good thing. Taking that seriously means extending the vote as far as we can.
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