Young People’s Voting Rights?

Children under 18 are a third of humanity, yet no democracy gives them the right to vote. Over time, suffrage has been extended for various reasons to wealthy traders, landowners, poor men, racial minorities, women, and most recently young adults. But minors (or in a few countries people under 16) are assumed to lack the requisite political competence. They are thought too undeveloped, uninformed, manipulable, or irresponsible.

Nevertheless, a children’s suffrage movement led by children and adults has gradually gained momentum since the 1970s. It has picked up steam in the past decade in the wake of child-led climate protests, anti-racism campaigns, gun control activism, children’s parliaments, child labor unions, and many other global expressions of children’s democratic power. A new politics of childism, modeled on feminism and antiracism, is seeking children’s systematic empowerment. In line with the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), the right to vote is being claimed as no different from other universal human rights such as to freedom of expression and assembly.

The argument is quite simple. First, contrary to popular opinion, children are not generally incompetent to vote. The true competence needed is not a supposedly autonomous rationality, which adults themselves do not really have, but the ability to choose among available political alternatives. This ability is present by definition in anyone desiring to vote. Its denial is an unjust discrimination and a real political harm. And second, children’s perspectives are very much needed on political issues. Young people have important experiences and perspectives to bring to public debates, whether on the climate emergency, poverty, health care, education, immigration, discrimination, or indeed every social issue. Children voting would strengthen, not weaken, democratic discourse and societies.

In short, children’s disenfranchisement is both unjust and counterproductive.

Now is the time to right this historical wrong. Democracies are facing a rising tide of authoritarianism, globalized corporate and technological power, and deep racial, gender, class, colonial, and other historical divisions. They need to stop teaching their citizens in their formative years that their voices do not count. They need to learn to see all the pixels on the screen instead of just those visible to the powerful few. And most importantly of all, they need to find ways at long last to hold themselves accountable to the entire demos or people instead of just some.

John Wall is Professor of Philosophy, Religion, and Childhood Studies, and Director the Childism Institute, at Rutgers University, United States. He is co-founder of a global project among academics and activists called the Children’s Voting Colloquium, and his latest book is Give Children the Vote: On Democratizing Democracy.