By James Kwak
This election day, spare a thought for the largest group of citizens who aren’t eligible to vote: children.
When I was in high school, I believed strongly that there should be no voting age whatsoever. Anyone should be able to vote, no matter her age. Well, I still feel that way, particularly after watching my ten-year-old daughter knocking on doors and explaining to adults why she doesn’t want her school to be grade-reconfigured. And I feel that way even though I also have a four-year-old son whose vote could be bought for a lollipop. (Whether he would stay bought is another question.)
There are two main arguments against a voting age. The first is that any plausible justification for a minimum voting age could be better served by some other test—which would be illegal. Many people think it is obvious that children shouldn’t be allowed to vote because they are uninformed, irresponsible, lack the necessary cognitive skills, are easily swayed by their parents, or something along those lines. (Note that similar arguments were made about all the other groups that used to be unable to vote.) But if the point of a voting age is to ensure that the electorate is properly informed about the issues and the stakes, we could administer a test, which would do a better job than an arbitrary age cutoff. (Who is the vice president? Which house of Congress approves judicial nominations? Etc.) That test would violate the Voting Rights Act, just like literacy tests.
If the point is to ensure that the electorate has the ability to process information and make rational decisions, again we could come up with a test for that—which would also probably violate the Voting Rights Act. And if we think that children are too easily swayed by their parents, what do we think about the undecided voters who are swayed by the types of television ads that every politician is running right now?
In short, the minimum voting age is supposedly intended to ensure certain characteristics in the voting population. Screening for those characteristics directly would be illegal. So why is OK to use a poor proxy for them?
The second, and more fundamental, argument against a voting age is that it undermines the whole point of our system of government. The reason we have a democracy isn’t that we think everyone is equally capable of making good decisions about who our leaders should be. It’s that we want our leaders to be accountable to ordinary people. This is called government by the consent of the governed. We want our representatives to take their constituents’ interests into account when making decisions; and if they don’t, we want to be able to vote them out of office. Because we want our government to be accountable to everyone, we don’t restrict the suffrage to certain classes of people; we don’t want some types of people to have more political power than others, simply by virtue of who they are.
Except that we do restrict the suffrage. Young people bear the costs of public policy as much as anyone (and arguably more so, since they will be alive for longer), but politicians can safely ignore them because they can’t vote. (Saying their parents will represent their interests is just silly; by that logic, we could simply have one vote per family.) Children live under our government; therefore they should be able to vote. It’s as simple as that.
Politically speaking, a lower voting age would probably help Democrats, since young people tend to be more liberal than old people. (It would probably also eliminate any suspense in the Clinton-Trump contest.) But that’s not the point, just like making election day a holiday isn’t about helping Democrats or increasing turnout. It’s about making sure that everyone has an equal opportunity to hold her representatives accountable.
So I think that if you have the ability to express a preference, you should be able to vote. I recognize that most people won’t agree with that rule. But there’s no reason that states can’t start by reduce the voting age to sixteen. (I’m not a constitutional law scholar, but Nathan Persily is, and he agrees that this is possible.) And do you know what? The world won’t end. And our democracy will be just a little bit stronger.