Monday, June 10, 2019

Should Children Have The Right To Vote?

Without an educated population, the grand experiment of democracy cannot flourish. This is why we educate our children, not so that they can one day join the workforce as a cog in the economy, but so that they can acquire the knowledge, skills, and habits required for self-governance. We need citizens who are critical thinkers, who ask a lot of questions, who question authority, who stand up for their beliefs, and who understand that they contribute to society in ways far beyond their ability to earn a greasy buck. These are not necessarily the traits of a good employee, but they are those of a good citizen.

We spend so much time and treasure preparing our children for citizenship, but what we too often neglect to recognize is that our children, even our newborn babies, are already citizens. Children are citizens who make up approximately a third of the US population. One in five of them lives in poverty. Their schools are underfunded. Infrastructure like playgrounds, swimming pools, and parks are typically the first on the chopping block. Children are exploited, abused, and trafficked at rates far above those of any other demographic group. Their freedoms are greatly restricted compared to the rest of the population, both by law and by common practice. In most places adults can even physically assault them ("spank") with impunity.

And, not coincidentally, children are also the only category of people who are denied the fundamental right of citizenship: the right to vote.

It might at first sound like a ridiculous idea, granting voting rights to children. After all, they aren't mentally fully developed, so how can we expect them to think rationally enough to vote? Of course, this is, in a nutshell, the same argument that was historically used for denying women and people of color the right to vote: it was a "ridiculous idea" because they simply didn't have the brains or temperament to participate in public life. And as for thinking "rationally," we don't deny adult citizens their right to vote if, say, they become senile, develop mental illness, or are otherwise mentally disabled. Indeed, I might even argue that anyone who doesn't vote the way I do is voting irrationally, but that doesn't mean they should be disenfranchised.

Voting is about representation, not rationality. Children are citizens who, like women and racial minorities, don't necessarily see the world the way the majority does, and if their perspective isn't included, democracy isn't going to work. History shows us that those whose voices are not included are invariably the ones who are also poorest and most likely to be exploited, which is exactly where we find ourselves today.

If children had the vote, elected leaders would have to begin to take the concerns of children seriously. Imagine that.

I understand that for many, this idea of children's suffrage is a non-starter. Even if you agree that children must be better represented, the idea of giving them the vote is simply too far out there to be seriously considered. I felt the same way until I read that the great John Holt, a man whose work I admire greatly and who continues to inspire my own work with young children, was one of the earliest advocates, a position he detailed in his book, Escape from Childhood. The idea has been percolating in my head for some time, then yesterday, encouraged by a reader, I dug in. I still have a lot more reading and thinking to do, especially around the mechanisms for how children's voting could be implemented, but the more I read, the more I'm coming to see that not only is it do-able, but necessary if we are truly interested in democracy.

There has already been progress in other nations, places like India where they have institutionalized children's parliaments, or nations like Brazil and Austria which have lowered the voting age to 16. Germany has even recently considered a proposal to grant its citizens voting rights from birth. Even the New York Times as taken the issue seriously. There are dozens of idea out there. Among the most compelling is the concept proposed by John Wall of Rutgers University writing in the International Journal of Human Rights (italics are mine):

My own proposal would be for an amended version of the German model in which suffrage is granted to all citizens at birth and exercised by a parent or guardian until such a time as each child or youth claims it for him- or herself. The difference here is that the right to vote on one’s own behalf is not granted by an adult but claimed by the child. A child claiming the right to vote can be taken as basic proof that the child possesses sufficient understanding and desire to exercise it competently.

Children represent one-third of the US population and as our youngest citizens, they will be living here long after the rest of us are gone. How can we move forward in good faith, without their active participation? And honestly, I seriously doubt that children would make a worse job of it than our current adult-only electorate. Indeed, I welcome the voices of children in public life: we need to hear them. It's time to get serious about true universal suffrage.

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