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Should We Let Children Vote? The Troubling Implications of Standard Reasons for Rejecting a Flawed Idea

Few will agree with Cambridge political scientist David Runciman's proposal to lower the voting age to 6. But standard reasons for rejecting the idea raise serious questions about many adult voters, too.


Prominent British political scientist David Runciman argues that the voting age should be lowered to six, in order to correct what he considers to be a serious age bias in modern democracy, where children's interests are increasingly neglected in favor of those of the elderly, who wield vastly greater political power:

The head of politics at Cambridge University has called for children as young as six to be given the vote in an attempt to tackle the age bias in modern democracy.

Prof David Runciman said the ageing population meant young people were now "massively outnumbered", creating a democratic crisis and an inbuilt bias against governments that plan for the future.

In the latest episode of his podcast, Talking Politics, he said lowering the voting age to 16 was not radical enough to address the problem.

He said: "I would lower the voting age to six, not 16. And I'm serious about that. I would want people who vote to be able to read, so I would exclude reception [age-children].

"What's the worst that could happen? At least it would be exciting, it would make elections more fun. It is never going to happen in a million years but as a way of capturing just how structurally unbalanced our democracies have become, seriously, why not? Why not six-year-olds?

Runciman added: "Old people are currently the coalition that have a huge inbuilt advantage in representative democratic politics.

"Young people are massively outnumbered because the voting age is 18, whereas there isn't a cutoff point at the other end. You don't lose the vote when you get to be 75. You can carry on voting until the day you die and there is no test. You could be frankly demented and still get to vote, which is as it should be. So young people are the losers here…."

He argued that if the voting age was not lowered, politics would be left to "people who aren't going to live into the future and can just care about the present."

It's easy to mock Runciman's idea and dismiss it out of hand. Even he himself admits that it "is never going to happen in a million years." There are a number of flaws in his reasoning. For example, it is far from clear that older voters care less about the future than very young ones. Many of the elderly have children and grandchildren whose future welfare they likely care about a great deal. By contrast, very few children—especially those as young as six—have children of their own. In addition, Runciman's implicit assumption that voters make decisions based on narrow self-interest is largely wrong. For what it's worth, I too reject the idea that we should let six year olds vote. Ditto for most other children.

But when we try to explain why children should not be allowed to vote, it turns out that all the plausible answers have disturbing implications: they all imply that a good many adults also should be excluded from the franchise. Despite some mistakes in his reasoning, Runciman has a point. He is not wrong to suggest that children have a strong interest in electoral outcomes, and that standard democratic theory implies all citizens with such an interest should—at least presumptively—have a say in deciding who controls the government.

Consider the most obvious justification for denying children the vote: that they are too ignorant to make good decisions. This is likely true, at least for the majority of them. But it also true of large numbers of adult voters. Political ignorance is widespread among the latter. A 2017 Pew survey found that only 26 percent of adult Americans can even name the three branches of government. Another recent study finds that only 36 percent could pass the simple civics test immigrants must take to become citizens.

And these examples are just the tip of a vast iceberg of adult voter ignorance. A large percentage of adult voters probably know less about government than a smart grade schooler who remembers what she learned in a basic history or social studies class. Indeed, given the very low likelihood that any one vote will influence electoral outcomes, it is actually rational for most people to devote little time and effort to acquiring political information.

Perhaps the real reason why children should be denied the franchise is not lack of knowledge, but their poor judgment and immaturity. Of course many adults also have poor judgment and lack maturity. Consider the current president of the United States, who is "undisciplined" and "doesn't like to read," and whose own staff often manage him as if they are babysitting an unruly toddler. If children should be denied the vote because they lack judgment and maturity, why not the many adults who lack those same qualities?

Maybe the problem with child-voters is that they don't have the benefit of various adult experiences, such as working at a job, raising a family, paying taxes, or running a business. I am actually skeptical that these are as important for making good voting decisions as knowledge of government and public policy. But if I'm wrong about that, then we have to reckon with the fact that numerous adults also lack these experiences. Conversely a good many children do in fact have some of them, most notably working at jobs, or even—in some cases—helping to run a family business.

Another standard justification for denying children the vote is that they are too easily influenced by adults. Many might just vote whichever way their parents tell them. Of course, the same thing is true of many adults. Their political views are also heavily influenced by friends or family members. Historically, one of the standard justifications for denying women the vote was that they would just follow the dictates of their husbands or fathers.

More recently, Hillary Clinton famously claimed that she lost the 2016 election in large part because many white women voted against her as a result of pressure from their spouses. Some scholars argue that social science evidence supports her claims. Regardless, it's hard to deny that many people's political views and voting decisions are influenced by parents, spouses, and other family members, and that this influence is strong even with many adults.

Finally, it is sometimes argued the disenfranchising children is no big deal, because it is only temporary. They will get the vote as soon as they turn 18 (or whatever the minimum voting age is). But children who were denied the vote in 2016 and this year, are going to be massively affected by the decisions made by the winners of these elections, often in ways that are difficult or impossible to reverse. And, of course, the exclusion of adults who lack necessary political knowledge or don't have some form of relevant life experience might also be temporary. It could be ended as soon as they show they have met minimum levels of political knowledge or obtained the right type of life experience.

With respect to most of these potential criteria for the franchise, children are, on average more likely to fall short than adults. But if statistical aggegates are enough to deny the vote to all children (including those who are exceptions to the pattern), why not to subsets of the adult population that also have an unusually high likelihood of falling short of our standards? Runciman, for example, points out that the elderly have a higher incidence of senile dementia than younger people, which might in turn reduce the average quality of their voting decisions. Data suggest that the poor, on average, have lower levels of political knowledge than more affluent voters. And so on.

Some political theorists argue that the quality of voters' decisions don't matter, or at least not enough to justify denying anyone the franchise. All that is important is that citizens have the right to exercise the franchise freely. They are then entitled to decide as they wish, regardless of whether their choices are well-informed or otherwise reflect good judgment. I disagree. But if such "pure proceduralist" justifications for democracy are valid, then we really have no good reason to deny children the franchise. If quality of decision-making is irrelevant for adult voters, why not children, as well?

The easiest way to reconcile standard justifications for denying the vote to children with the way we treat adult voters is to subject both children and adults to the same standards: before being allowed to vote, all should be required to prove they have a minimum level of political knowledge, judgment and maturity, or whatever other qualities are essential to being a good voter. This idea leads to something like Jason Brennan's theory of "epistocracy"—the "rule of the knowers." Competence, not age, would determine eligibility for the franchise. And that franchise need not be reserved to just a small elite. Depending on what kinds of standards are set, many millions of people would still be able to vote, including some children who are currently barred.

Unfortunately, I doubt that real-world governments can be trusted to either come up with good criteria for an epistocratic franchise, or apply them in an unbiased fashion. That's why I am skeptical of proposals to establish a knowledge test for voters, even though I do not reject all such ideas as a matter of principle. I am open to potentially expanding the franchise by including knowledgeable children. But I oppose the establishment of a universal testing system, which would create a much higher risk of abuse.

At least for a long time time to come, we are likely stuck with a system under which we deny children the vote for reasons that (often rightly) call into question the competence of numerous adult voters. This may be unavoidable. But it should make us more skeptical about the desirability of giving so much power to a political process heavily influenced by public ignorance. And it should lead us to be more open to proposals to limit and decentralize government power, so that more decisions can be made in a framework where people have better incentives to become informed and exercise good judgment.