The history of moral and political progress has often been a history of becoming aware of our ancient prejudices – reconsidering them – realizing that they have no basis in reason or justice – and eventually, after significant struggle, giving them up. And as revered leftist Noam Chomsky once observed, progress has always involved “a widening of the moral realm, bringing in broader and broader domains of individuals who are regarded as moral agents.”
This is why I believe it’s time for Americans to seriously reconsider one of our most widely accepted and indefensible acts of discrimination: the mass disenfranchisement of young Americans.
The argument for child suffrage is simple: children are people, too. Like everyone else, children have a significant stake in our country’s governance, and they too will be subjected to the authority of the state. For that reason, they have a right to participate in power, in affirmation of their intrinsic value and dignity as human beings. I see no way around this.
There is no good objection
There are obviously all kinds of standard objections to child suffrage, but they’re so trivial and easily dismissed that we should easily be able to see them for what they are: mere pretexts and excuses for maintaining a clear injustice. Consider some of the most common.
But children would make poor voting choices! This isn’t an objection we would ever accept against anyone else’s right to vote, and for good reason. It begs precisely the question that, in a democracy, only voting should get to answer: who gets to decide?
No but really, children are biologically less capable than adults of making good choices! This still begs the same question, but even on its own terms the argument is implausible. Assuming there is a “right” answer to any given political question, it’s clear that adults generally get it wrong about 50% of the time. This also happens to be the typical odds of getting it wrong if your vote were completely random. Evidently 50% is an acceptable threshold for adults, so what is the argument that children would actually do worse than random chance?
Children don’t have enough knowledge or experience to make good voting choices. See the first two points, but again, if we take this objection seriously it disqualifies most adults as well. Very few of us have experience or knowledge that is actually relevant to the tasks of governance. For example, most adults do not have any background in macroeconomics, which is more or less exclusively what you need to make many of the decisions that legislators and executives make.
Children would not even attempt to make logical and well-informed decisions. These expectations are in fact less universal than they would seem at first glance – there are, for example, plenty of adults who believe that voting should be dictated by the intuitions of faith, and would use phrases like “man’s wisdom” and “damned statistics” to dismiss rationalistic politics. But the fact is that rationalistic voting rarely even holds among the voters who advocate it. Study after study makes it abundantly clear that political thought is often extremely irrational, controlled by all kinds of cognitive biases and shortcuts and odd quirks of psychology that have nothing to do with facts or logic. It’s not at all clear that adults are particularly distinct from children in this regard.
Children would just vote the way their parents tell them to. This is another one that, if applied consistently, would also disenfranchis adults: as a matter of empirical fact, adults are also extremely likely to vote as their parents did (though neither will necessarily do so). Generally, we maintain that people should at least have the opportunity to make their own choices at the voting booth, even if they ultimately decide to do what someone else tells them. Moreover, even if we believe that undue or coercive parental influence is a problem, the solution is not to disenfranchise the victims, but to protect them.
This is our priority
Even those inclined to agree that children should be allowed to vote may nevertheless decide that the issue simply isn’t pressing or significant enough to find its way into our political priorities – but this, too, is indefensible, and can only reflect a failure to appreciate the magnitude of the injustice.
Ageist voting laws have disenfranchised more Americans than any other laws in history. Today roughly 80 million citizens can’t vote – nearly a quarter of the country’s entire population. To put that in perspective, that’s more than three times the population of Iraq, where we went to war, as President Bush said, for the sake of “sustaining democratic values.”
And as a matter of simple math, children have if anything a much greater stake in our governance than anyone else. They’ll be dealing with the consequences for much longer – many of which, moreover, are irreversible. It is for example radically, freakishly immoral and monstrous that the Americans who will try to live through the postapocalyptic hellscape of climate change – and who, by then, will not be able to do anything to reverse it – are precisely the Americans who do not get any say in the decisions we are making right now. If the worst happens, they won’t just remember our inaction; they’ll also remember that we refused to give them any choice.
America’s adults have perpetrated this tyranny long enough. We may find it politically convenient to maintain our monopoly on voting rights, and we may find the possibilities of change uncomfortable and frightening; but progress always is. If we wish to demonstrate our petty selfishness, our historical ignorance, our unthinking conformity to the beliefs of our parents, our moral inconsistency, and our brazen irrationality, the best way to do it would be to keep the vote to ourselves. If we want to show our maturity, our disinterested judgment, our capacity for reason, and a firm grasp of the lessons of history, we’ll give our children the greatest gift we can: a voice in their own future.
Photo courtesy Orin Zebest