One of the most marginalised groups in contemporary democracies is the third of the world’s population who are children under 18 years of age. John Wall argues that responding to democratic decline in our time must include giving all children the right to vote
Article 21 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights claims that 'everyone has the right to take part in the government of [their] country' and that the will of the people shall be expressed 'by universal and equal suffrage.'
Today, we take this 'universal' to mean suffrage for adults. In most democracies, the state grants voting rights at age 18, though in some it is as old as 21 and in approximately 20 countries it is 16.
But history shows that the meaning of suffrage has transformed radically over time. For centuries, democracies enfranchised only a tiny elite of wealthy freemen. At the founding of the United States, voting was a right for only the 6% of the population with significant land ownership. The first country to enfranchise all men over 21 was France, in 1848. The first national vote for women came in New Zealand in 1893. And adults under 21 largely did not start gaining suffrage until the 1960s.
The meaning of suffrage has transformed radically over time. For centuries, democracies enfranchised only a tiny elite of wealthy freemen
How did people imagine 'democracy' in each of these times? It is not just a matter of numbers. Rather, the franchise itself has taken on profoundly different qualitative meanings. Rule by landowners is not the same system as rule by white men. And this, in turn, is different from rule by men overall, rule by older adults, and rule at age of majority.
It should not be necessary to argue for children’s democratic inclusion; the onus should fall on those favouring exclusion. As Kei Nishiyama argues elsewhere in this series, children should be a driving force in democratic life. However, as for the poor, minorities, women, and younger adults in the past, we must confront underlying normative assumptions if the existing situation is no longer simply to be taken for granted.
In my book, Give Children the Vote, and in an edited volume, Exploring Children’s Suffrage, I and others argue that the present adult-only regime does not stand up to scrutiny. These arguments grow out of a decades-long ageless suffrage movement among children, advocates, and researchers that started in the 1970s and is now international and interdisciplinary.
States grant suffrage to adult regardless of knowledge, skills, literacy, intelligence, or even cognitive impairment or dementia
Take the usual view that children are not competent. For adults, competence is nowhere a requirement. States grant suffrage regardless of knowledge, skills, literacy, intelligence, or even cognitive impairment or dementia. Requiring competence from children but not adults is a clear double standard and discriminatory against a fundamental human right. What is more, most children certainly are competent. They protest global warming, demonstrate for Black Lives Matter, fight for better working conditions and transgender rights. They have views about everything from gun control to poverty, and much else.
Would children voting cause them harm?
There is no loss of innocence in having the option to turn up at the polls (or not) every few years. Children already have rights to freedom of expression, conscience, and assembly without sliding down a slippery slope to age-limited rights like driving, marriage, and work. Far from harming children, suffrage would yield the countless and systemic benefits of pressuring politicians to pay more attention to children’s lives. Children would stand to gain better-funded healthcare, stronger educations, protections from poverty, and overall greater social dignity.
Would adults' rights suffer?
As in all previous suffrage movements, some feel that new groups gaining the vote means existing voters lose out. But this assumption always proves false. Why? Because wider suffrage forces politicians to make better choices for all. It adds more pixels to their policy-making screens. Parents will have more support for parenting, educators stronger resources for educating, doctors better informed laws governing healthcare, and so on. Benefits will follow across all sectors of society in which children and adults are involved.
Why should suffrage be 'universal and equal'? It is because democracies are meant to respond to the concerns of those they govern. The problem with an adult-only franchise is that it is structurally autocratic, enshrining the rule of one group over another. Adultocracy, as we might call it, perpetuates a deep historical patriarchy. Only with children’s suffrage can the democratic experiment hope to succeed.
An adult-only franchise enshrines the rule of one group over another. Only with children’s suffrage can the democratic experiment hope to succeed
Children’s enfranchisement, among other things, would counter existing democracies’ slide into short-termism.
Adult populations and corporate bottom lines, for example, skew political decision-making toward the immediate here and now. Ageless voting would pressure representatives to think longer-term. Politicians would more likely approach the climate emergency with the needed urgency; consider the meaning of economic policies over generations; create education policies that prioritise lifelong skills; treat criminals in a genuinely rehabilitative way; worry about decades-long impacts of going to war; and so on across the entire policy arena.
Child-inclusive voting would also provide a powerful antidote to creeping twenty-first century democratic authoritarianism.
If citizens are taught for the first quarter of their lives that their voices do not count, it is no wonder that as adults they feel so often disempowered and disengaged. Or that they are so easily enticed by autocratic leaders with simple answers. If, instead, everyone’s input was equally valued throughout their lives, children would grow up understanding their own democratic power and dignity as citizens.
And we’d have to rethink political philosophy, too.
Across liberal, deliberative, agonistic, and other democratic theories, children are barely given a thought. Just as when women, minorities, and the poor were forgotten, this distorts not only democracy but how democracy is understood. New ideas of childist politics, forged in dialogue with children themselves, would help us imagine democracy as more truly democratic.