Eric Wiland‘s daughter can’t vote this year because she’s too young. Is that fair? Eric doesn’t think so. In this short piece written for What’s Wrong?, he explains why. (image: child voting)
ONE CITIZEN, ONE VOTE
Presidential primary season is just around the corner, and I already know who I am voting for. Unfortunately, barring some drastic new legislation, my daughter won’t be able to vote in our state’s election, currently scheduled for March 15. She is a United States citizen. She is not imprisoned, nor has she ever been convicted of a felony. There was a time when she would have been ineligible to vote simply because she does not own any land. Those days are over. There was also a time when she would have been ineligible to vote simply because she is not a man. Those days, too, are over. She is white, and she has a government-issued photo ID, so she does not face the same barriers that others face.
The problem is that she is seventeen, and she won’t turn eighteen until April of 2016. So, she can’t vote in the primary due to her age. This is unjust. Citizens have–or should have–the right to vote. There are no good reasons for disenfranchising citizens because of their age.
I can guess what you are thinking: “While any particular dividing line is arbitrary, we have to draw a line somewhere, and eighteen is as good a place as any.” There are several problems with this argument, but the biggest is the thought that when it comes to voting, we have to draw a line somewhere. Do we? Can’t we eliminate the voting age entirely?
But won’t children just vote the way their parents vote? Please. Since when do you know children who do everything their parents do? (Right, Charlotte?) Besides, it’s plausible that many children care more about the environment, education, and the public debt than do citizens whose remaining life expectancy is much shorter. (Do you now see how we got into the trouble we are in?) More importantly, even if children were to vote exactly how their parents did, how would this justify disenfranchising them? Would you support disenfranchising wives if it were true that they vote the same way their husbands do?
But children won’t be able to use the voting machines! If children can figure out how to install software on their phones so that they can privately send photos and messages to one another, I think that they can also learn how to use the voting machines. Plus, isn’t teaching children things like how to vote what Civics class is for?
What about the children who can’t even read? What about the adults who can’t even read? They are not turned away from the polls, at least not any more. So there’s no reason to turn away from the polls all children simply because a few of them can’t read.
Most children won’t even be able to reach the voting screen or ballot. “Sorry, kids, we would have had a genuine democracy, but we just can’t find step stools for you to use.” More seriously, we already accommodate voters with various physical and mental disabilities, and rightly so. It is a very small stretch to accommodate children.
Wouldn’t eliminating the voting age reward people with large families? Maybe. Allowing women to vote may also benefit husbands more than it would bachelors. It’s hard to see, however, how this, even if true, would justify disenfranchising millions of citizens.
Well, we have minimum ages for many other things: driving, serving in the military, serving on a jury, getting a tattoo, signing a contract, drinking alcohol, and marriage. Are these age restrictions also unjust? No, they’re not. The difference between a voting age and these other minimum ages is that in these other cases a person can seriously harm someone (usually, herself) if she does these things before she is physically, intellectually, or emotionally mature enough to do them well. An eight year old behind the wheel of a car, for example, can kill people. An eight year old in the voting booth can, at worst, get a paper cut. So there is no similar need for an age restriction on voting.
We have age restrictions on the Presidency and on assuming other elective offices. Are these age restrictions also unjust? Maybe they are. But even if the Constitution justly forbids young people from representing others, this does not entail that it is okay to deny young people the right to be represented. Compare this to the restriction that the President be a natural-born citizen. If this restriction is just, it still would be unjust to restrict the right to vote for the Presidency to only natural-born citizens.
The best reason to stop young citizens from voting is tradition. Children have never been allowed to vote. And this fact is the best explanation for why most adults now oppose abolishing the voting age. But although tradition is the best reason for having a voting age, it still isn’t a very good reason. There is no good reason to disenfranchise citizens merely because of their age.
And there are several other good reasons why children should be permitted to vote. First, if children know they may vote, many of them will be more strongly motivated to learn about government, history, and public affairs in school. Second, those who vote as children are more likely to vote regularly as adults. Third, adults whose children vote will feel pressure to vote too. Finally, the United States conceives of itself as a global democratic leader. One way to live up to that ideal is to spread some more democracy here at home.
There are over 74 million children in the United States. Whether they have the right to vote is not some fringe issue. The fact that they don’t is one of the greatest remaining political injustices of our form of government.
One might object that children do not know enough to vote well, and therefore we should not allow them to vote. Of course, if you make this objection, you’re an epistocrat rather than a democrat.
Hey, Eric! Thanks for your post.
You say that voting is unlike driving, serving in the military, serving on a jury, etc. in that one cannot can seriously harm someone by voting before she is mature enough to vote well. But I’m skeptical of that. Isn’t voting even more dangerous than any of the activities on your list. Children will presumably swing some elections, and if they swing an election the wrong way, we could end up much worse off than we would have been otherwise. For example, they might swing a presidential election in favor of a candidate that leads us into a costly war.
But maybe you think that allowing children to vote is no more dangerous than allowing adults to vote. Any thoughts?