The Biggest Voter Suppression Campaign of All

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.

13 responses to “The Biggest Voter Suppression Campaign of All

  1. I rarely comment here, although I read every post carefully. What occurred to me as I read was that in 1972 I could detect Nixon’s character better than those around me. So could many other young people. We kept saying “I told you so” right up until he resigned. I would let 16-year-olds vote. They wouldn’t make worse decisions than us Baby Boomers did once we supposedly grew up.

  2. Its all kabuki theater folks, you have been mislead for so many years it has become a reality for you, there is only one party line, the arrogant, hypocritical, tyrannical, one.
    You have been dumbed down, hypnotized by technological gadgets, followed so many decoys for so long you don’t even see your own demise coming right in front of your eyes. The democrats are habitual liars, they made a carrier of doing so because they had no other choice in controlling you.
    Democrats, Republicans, even the groundhogs are to be thrown into the dustbin of history, because, we had to destroy the human race, in order to save it. Just like we have to pass legislation in order to find out what it is comprised of, all these things must occur, go TRUMP.

  3. Maybe I’m alone but it seems to me that children are already running for office and that many more are voting. What’s age got to do with it?

  4. Yeah, but do we really want women inducing labor just so their newborn can vote for Trump?

    What I think you’re missing is that the objection to things like literacy tests is not from a principled opposition to a competent electorate but rather from the subjectivity of the tests – who gets to make up the questions (and the answers)? Age is a poor proxy but at least it is completely objective.

  5. Ray LaPan-Love

    The push to get out the vote is so pervasive that small children are affected. But of course the US must show ‘acceptable’ voting numbers if it is to continue ‘making the world safe for democracy’. Nearly all candidates do however say, or at least imply, that their opponent may bring about the end of the world as we know it. Small children should be protected from the insanity.

  6. Children were/are meant to be seen and NOT heard from, in this town.

  7. And let’s face it: young people have a stake in the future that olds don’t. Perhaps there should be an age *limit*.

  8. Indeed, “if the average life length of a person in UK were 80 and our democracies had anything to do with representation of interests, as in companies, then a new born should have 80 votes, a middle age 56 year old like me 24 votes and someone over eighty should count his blessings if he is allowed to keep his single vote”

  9. Prepare yourselves to be thrown under the bus, it was written.

  10. Robert Kaplan

    I prefer Jonathan Swift’s “Modest Proposal’ in which he advocated for the hungry poor to eat their children.

  11. An option would be to give the votes of parents additional weight to reflect that (i) they are responsible for their children’s welfare and (ii) their children are citizens whose welfare will be affected by the outcome of an election.

  12. I know this is “old news” but why aren’t more people talking about the lasting effects of the 2008 Crash and President Obama’s refusal to prosecute the insider criminals who colluded to engineer this calamity? If you look at the map of those areas that got hit hardest and those areas that were helped by factors such as TARP, proximity to Washington DC, resilient industries, high-tech training, etc., isn’t this more-or-less the Trump vs. Clinton map of 2016.

    President Obama basically hoped for a “trickle down” effect from bailing out the crooks, and it didn’t work.

  13. TARP and the failure to prosecute Wall Street were bipartisan affairs. Trump had a degree of deniability on those issues given that he wasn’t in office.

    What’s ironic is that a Trump win looks like it could be the ideal outcome for Wall Street — especially with a GOP that is even more deferential to Wall Street than the Dems.

    Obama was able to counter the Wall Street resentment, in part, because states like Ohio and Michigan did receive significant aid in 2009-2010. Obama championed the auto-bailout which was critical to the region, even though the measure was very unpopular in 2009. It was part of the reason he beat Romney, who had been a critic of the bailout in 2009.

    If Obama had been matched up against Trump, we would be looking at a third Obama term (and a likely GOP take-over in 2020). He has a mixed record, but he is still personally popular. Even with voters in 2016 — he had a net favorable of +10 points. The Clinton people ran a campaign based on a lot of mistaken assumptions. They assumed Wisconsin and Michigan were in the bag, even though she had lost the primary in those states. There was no effort to actually campaign in those states until too late. Clinton was also outspent in those states.