Most adult Americans would laugh at the idea of a 13-year-old walking into a polling booth. But that’s a familiar attitude in the history of American voting rights.
The first state to grant women’s suffrage was Wyoming — and it started as a joke, too. Edward M. Lee, the territory’s secretary, wrote: “During the session, amid the greatest hilarity, and … in the full expectation of a gubernatorial veto, an act was passed Enfranchising the Women of Wyoming.” The veto never came. A century later, this inauspicious start came full circle when women were included in the Civil Rights Act as part of yet another lawmaker’s joke.
Still, serious arguments against children’s suffrage abound. Eighteen to 21-year-olds already vote in dismal numbers — why should we give the vote to people even younger, who probably care less? Even if they do care to vote, children don’t have the intellectual capacity or the life experience to understand complex issues. Supposing you did stick them in a polling booth, they’re likely to vote exactly as their parents tell them to — essentially giving parents double, triple, or quadruple the votes.
But we’ve heard these arguments before.
A 1910 pamphlet from the National Association Opposed to Women’s Suffrage, for example, emphasized remarkably similar objections, such as “because 90% of the women either do not want it, or do not care” and “because 80% of the women eligible to vote are married and can only double or annul their husband’s votes.”
People of color have also suffered greatly on account of specious logic. Following the Civil War that should’ve settled the issue, white politicians and phrenologists trotted out “biology” to argue that a black person’s brain was inferior, and so black people weren’t capable of understanding the issues. The result was the literacy test, one of the most despicable stains on the history of our democracy.
In fact, nearly every objection one could have to children’s suffrage has been thoroughly rejected as a reason to deny anyone else the right to vote. Consider that many adults can’t or don’t follow complex policy issues, or don’t care enough to vote. Even in heated presidential elections, hardly more than half of eligible voters go to the polls. But we’d consider it undemocratic to deny citizens the right to vote based on presumed ignorance or actual disuse. We may discount the opinions of people who think NASA faked the moon landing, but we still count their ballots — and most Americans would agree it’s important that we do.
Young people might just vote the way their parents tell them to — but traditionally, the party of your parents has always been the strongest indicator of your voting habits. We don’t seem to mind when voters take cues from their parents once they’re 18, so why do we object when they’re younger? Children voting like their parents doesn’t violate one-person, one vote — it validates it. A child is a person, too.
Children’s suffrage also serves our long-term future because politicians are incentivized by their constituents. The best way to move the needle on the issues that will affect young people, like climate change and college affordability, is to give them a voice and a vote. That’s how our system is designed to work.
No doubt there are times when we should treat children differently from adults. It’s good and right that we try children in court separately, for example. When we treat children differently under the law, it’s to protect them. In matters such as health and finance, young people have legal guardians to prevent them from being taken advantage of. But what do we protect children from when we deny them the vote? In the worst case scenario, someone could conceivably try to trick or intimidate a young person into voting a certain way — a dubious and unlikely strategy that would prove ineffective at scale. Then again, adults are occasionally the target of voter intimidation — this year, in fact, it’s been encouraged as a political strategy by Donald Trump.
So what’s the best way forward? Perhaps in an ideal world we would let children vote when they felt they were ready, but political exigencies won’t allow a law like that anytime soon. Even my preferred starting age — 13 — would be a stretch. But the success of Takoma Park’s historic expansion of voting rights tells us that slowly lowering the voting age could work in America. Some proposals, while imperfect, might serve as workable compromises that allow us to go even further. A popular one is Demeny voting, which allows parents and guardians to vote on behalf of their children. Germany, Hungary, and Japan have all seriously considered this. Another option, based on a 2004 amendment proposition in California: ease young Americans into voting with a fractional, escalating system, in which children amass 1/10th of a vote every year between the ages 8 and 18. This arrangement would make voting both a near-universal right and a taught skill — a habit that’s learned and expanded over time.
Whatever the method, finding a way to enfranchise more young people is the right thing to do for children, for adults, and for our democracy. “Won’t somebody think of the children?” has become a cliche of our political discourse. But maybe we should stop thinking for them, and let them think — and speak — for themselves.