In some interpretations of the history of the franchise in the United States, the story has been one of moving gradually, sometimes painfully so, away from limits on who could vote: Over time, property restrictions were dropped, then ethnicity (de jure), then gender, then ethnicity (de facto), with even the minimum age dropping to 18 after the passage and ratification of the 26th Amendment forty years ago this spring. While there have been some exceptions to this overall trend—for example, voting was made more difficult by voter registration laws during the Progressive era and, more recently, the disenfranchisement of felons and even ex-felons—most Americans would agree that the basic story is one of the triumph of universal suffrage. But that’s not actually the case. Millions of Americans are regularly disenfranchised because they have not reached the minimum required age. This begs the obvious question: Why can’t children vote?
While the question might sound preposterous at first, a fairly good case can be made for a system that I would term “vote-from-birth,” in which age limits on voting would be eliminated entirely. Not only would older teens be allowed to vote independently, but parents would be responsible for casting votes on behalf of those too young to do so for themselves. Even if you don’t ultimately buy into the idea, a thorough working through of the logic behind it proves helpful in parsing out some pretty basic questions about our belief in democracy.
Perhaps you’re thinking at this point: Surely, teenagers are too ill-informed to cast votes. But we don’t restrict the vote based on wisdom or on knowledge of the political system for current voters, including those who never finished high school or are otherwise unlikely to make wise choices. I think we’re quite right not to do so, and to remember that ignorance as the stated grounds for restricting the ballot has been a common and unfortunate thread in American history. Indeed, once kids have reached the age where they begin to assume responsibility for themselves in other portions of life, they should be able to vote as well. For argument’s sake, I’d set it at 15, the age they begin high school and a new level of independence, but I’d be open to arguments for a lower or slightly higher limit as well.
But what about even younger kids, for whom parents, under the vote-from-birth system, would cast votes by proxy? To make the case for this, it’s necessary to being with a more basic question: Why do we have elections to begin with? What, in other words, is the advantage of democracy? One of the strongest justifications for democracy is to aggregate interests. And, if democracy is at least partly about aggregating interests, the case for voting from birth is surprisingly strong.
Under this rationale for democracy, the reason for elections has to do with a concept of fairness. If everyone is allowed to act (by voting) in their own self-interest, then policy decisions will eventually reflect their accumulated will, at least to some extent, or much better at least than if some autocratic or technocratic government made the decisions. We alone know, and judge, our own interests.
But children, even infants, have interests that are as legitimate as those of anyone else. Indeed, when we take the census and calculate Congressional district apportionment and other formulas, children count just as much as much as adults. It’s true, of course, that for young children, parents would have to exercise that vote on their behalf, but that’s hardly a big deal; we expect parents to do all sorts of things on behalf of the interests of their children. As for the objection that this would unfairly give parents “extra” votes, that’s only the case if one thinks of children as non-people. Otherwise, parents are only getting their own votes, plus children are getting theirs, and that’s only natural.
Setting theory aside for a minute, what would be the practical effects on the political landscape of vote-from-birth? Probably nothing too revolutionary. Parents with young children would, of course, have a bit more weight in the political system; those who argue that older people (who have relatively high participation rates) are overrepresented might like that. Older children and teenagers might continue to simply vote alongside their parents—or, perhaps, if they had to show up at the polls themselves, they might have even lower turnout rates than their 18 to 25 year-old brothers and sisters, who have the lowest rates of any current group. As far as partisan balance, if the National Scholastic quadrennial vote-in-school program is any indication, kids pretty much echo whatever the broader electorate does. On the good side, it is perhaps plausible that making voting more of a family activity could encourage and even enrich participation, as parents might benefit from explaining their choices to their children, and children could get hands-on experience with the basics of democracy while they are still living at home, in familiar communities. Perhaps that could be encouraged by having an intermediate range (say, ages 8 through 14) in which children were required to be at the polls when parents cast votes on their behalf.
In the end, if American democracy is understood at least partly as a matter of interest aggregation, then the case for everyone voting makes a lot of sense. In fact, there’s little doubt in my mind that if things had evolved a bit differently and we currently had vote-from-birth, no one would even dream of stripping away this right. Although Republicans might, I suppose, want to require long-form birth certificates at the polling place..
Jonathan Bernstein blogs at A Plain Blog About Politics.
Follow @tnr on Twitter.