A recent article from the The Guardian, David Runciman, a British political scientist, argues for the lowering of voting age from six to six. The idea will likely be rejected by most people. The argument is much stronger than what you may think. If used consistently, almost every argument against denying children the right to vote would also be valid for adults. This is an excerpt of Runciman’s essay:
Arguments against children voting always begin with the fundamental question of competence. This means that we apply standards to children to which we don’t have to apply to others. Of course, it is not surprising that children of all ages would find it difficult to grasp complex political concepts, even younger children. A group of six year-olds would struggle to understand fiscal policy. But many adults also struggle with complex political questions, and all of us have big gaps in our political understanding….. It is not true that there is a competence test to determine whether someone can vote. Why not start with them?
It is a 19th century idea to set up imaginary tests in order to allow enfranchisement. We no longer consider voting a human right, based on their ability to exercise it. This is the basis for the universal suffrage principle that has replaced it. Because we all belong to a democratic political group, voting is an individual right. Therefore, each one of us will bear the consequences. We should be able to voice our opinions about the decisions that affect us. Children are just as entitled to this right as adults.
Perhaps the argument for letting children vote may be less pragmatic than it is principled. It is clear that more people are more likely to grasp the implications of an election than 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. With increasing population age, the percentage of those suffering from cognitive impairment and dementia rises. We don’t remove the right to vote from elderly people and don’t give competence tests to those in their 90s or 80s.
The problem with voting for children isn’t that they lack knowledge, as they have a better sense of judgment and maturity than adults. As I mentioned in my 2018 post about an older version of Runciman’s proposal, many adult voters have similar flaws.
The real reason children shouldn’t be allowed to franchise should not be their lack of knowledge. Many adults lack maturity and poor judgement. The current US president is an example. He’s “unorganized” and “doesn’t like reading,” and his own staff manage him almost as if they were child care. Why should children be denied voting rights because of their lack of maturity and judgment?
This is also true for other reasons to deny children the right to vote. A second excerpt is from my 2018 blog post
Perhaps the issue with child-voters, is the lack of adult experience, like working, raising children, and paying taxes. These experiences are not as crucial for voting as knowledge about government and policy. If that’s the case, it is important to remember that not all adults have these same experiences. However, many children have these experiences, including working in jobs or helping their family run businesses.
One reason children are denied the vote is because they can be easily influenced and manipulated by their parents. Some might vote in the way that their parents want them to. The same holds true for many adults. Friends and family can also influence their political opinions. In the past, women were denied the right to vote if they did not follow their husbands and fathers.
Hillary Clinton claimed more recently that her loss in 2016 was due to the fact that many white women chose not to vote for Hillary Clinton because of their husbands’ pressure. Some experts argue that the claims are supported by social science. It’s not hard to see that parents and spouses have a significant influence on people’s voting and political opinions. This is true even for adults.
In my 2018 post I explain the flaws in Runciman’s argument. Children will get the vote when they are old enough. Runciman is correct in some aspects, but I disagree with Runciman on others. Runciman’s suggestion that younger and older generations have a strong clash of interests is wrong and is what explains the political divide in the UK and USA. Also, I’m skeptical about claims that spending public money on children is less popular than spending on elderly people because they have more political power. According to surveys of public opinion, older adults support higher education while young people are more supportive of major programs such as Medicare and Social Security.
Runciman does have a point. However, Runciman has essentially right that the standard reasons for denying franchise to children (especially more educated children) would justifiably disenfranchise large numbers of adult citizens.
This conclusion is what I believe we should come to (also taken directly from my 2018 post).
It is possible to combine standard reasons for denying the vote to kids with how we treat adults voters by requiring both adult and child voters to meet the same standards. All should have to show that they are at least able to judge and use political judgments and demonstrate the necessary qualities to be a good voter before they can vote. It is possible to create something similar to Jason Brennan’s “epistocracy” theory – the “rule for the knowledgeable”. Eligibility for the franchise is determined by competence and not age. The franchise does not have to be restricted to an elite few. The standards that are used will determine how many people can vote. This includes some of the children currently exempted.
It is difficult to believe that governments in real life can either create good criteria or follow them in an impartial manner. Even though I support the idea of a knowledge-test for voters, it is something I doubt. The possibility of expanding the franchise to include knowledgeable children is something I would consider. However, I am opposed to the creation of universal testing systems which could lead to a higher level of abuse.
For a very long time, it is likely that we will continue with an electoral system in which children are denied the vote. These reasons (often correctly) question the competence and competency of many adult voters. Perhaps this is inevitable. It should however make us less likely to give so much power as a result of public ignorance. It should also make us more open to suggestions to decentralize and limit government power so more decisions can made within a context where individuals have greater incentives to exercise their good judgement and become more informed.