The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
In a recent article in the The Guardian, British political scientist David Runciman outlines his case for lowering the voting age to six. Most people will be inclined to reject the idea out of hand. But the argument for it is stronger than you might think. Pretty much every argument for denying the vote to children would - if applied consistently - also justify denying it to large numbers of adults. Here's an excerpt from Runciman's piece:
The arguments against allowing children to vote always start with the basic question of competence. But what that means is that we are applying standards to children that we have given up applying to anyone else. It is true, of course, that many children would struggle to understand complex political questions, especially younger children. It is hard to envisage a group of six-year-olds getting to grips with fiscal policy. But many adults also struggle with complex political questions, and all of us have big gaps in our political understanding….. The fact is that we don't apply a test of competence before granting the right to vote to anyone other than children. So why start with them?
Setting imaginary tests before allowing enfranchisement is an essentially 19th-century idea. The basis of the principle of universal suffrage that replaced it is that we no longer believe voting is a right that belongs to individuals on the grounds of their competence to exercise it. Instead, it is a right that belongs to each of us because we are members of a democratic political community, and will have to live with the consequences of the decisions that are made by politicians on our behalf. If we suffer the consequences of those decisions, we should have a right to express a view about who gets to decide. That applies to children just as much as adults.
Perhaps, instead, the argument against letting children vote is less a principled one than a pragmatic one. Surely more adults are likely to understand what is at stake in an election than a group of schoolchildren. But that depends a great deal on how we conceive of the groups in question….
The question of competence – and the difficulty of using it as an argument against extending the vote to children – is especially acute in ageing societies such as our own. As the population ages, so the number of voters suffering from dementia and other forms of cognitive decline rises. But we don't take the vote away from old people, and we don't apply tests of competence to individuals in their 80s and 90s.
Perhaps the problem with children voting is not that they are less knowledgeable than adults, but that they are less mature and have worse judgment. But, as I explained in a 2018 post on an earlier version of Runciman's proposal, large numbers of adult voters also have the same flaws:
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?
The same is true of other rationales for denying children the vote. Another excerpt from my 2018 post:
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.
In the 2018 post, I also explain flaws in the argument that it is no big deal to deny children the vote, because they will eventually get it when they grow up. I don't agree with every aspect of Runciman's argument. For example, I think he's wrong to suggest that there is a deep clash interest between younger and older generations and that this explains much of the current political polarization in Britain and the US. I am also skeptical of claims that public spending on children is unpopular relative to spending on the elderly because the latter have disproportionate political power. Public opinion surveys consistently show that elderly adults strongly support spending on education, while younger ones support major programs for the elderly, such as Medicare and Social Security.
Nonetheless, Runciman is basically right in his point that standard rationales for denying the franchise to children - particularly more knowledgeable children - would also justify disenfranchising large numbers of adults
Ultimately, I think we are left with this conclusion (also taken from my 2018 post):
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.