Wednesday, May 18, 2011

If Bachmann Can Run (and Vote)...

Conor Friedersdorf has some smart comments about the 10th grader who challenged Michele Bachmann to a competition over knowledge of the Constitution. I recommend it.

My reaction? If I had a magic wand, I'd give this 10th grader and her peers the right to vote -- and the right to really challenge Bachmann by running against her in the next election.

First of all, as I've said before, I just don't see what is gained from making Americans ages 18-35 only partial citizens by restricting their ability to run for office. Yes, most 20 year olds shouldn't be Members of the House of Representatives, but so what? Most 50 year olds shouldn't, either! I see no reason why the electorate is supposedly able to judge the latter but not the former. Practices vary around the world, and this is one where I think the framers of the Constitution just got it wrong.

And, then, voting age. Ezra Klein had a fun little item yesterday about weighted votes in America, and he's upset that folks in Wyoming are overrepresented in the Senate, and that's fair enough. But you know who is really underrepresented? Those under 18 years of age. The more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that teenagers are perfectly capable of voting -- and the more I think about it, the more I'm open to the argument for vote-from-birth.

Granted, the question becomes the meaning of voting and elections. Do we believe in elections because we believe that collective decision making yields the best decisions? Do we believe in elections because we believe that citizens should have an opportunity for meaningful political action? Or do we believe in elections because we believe that all interests should be equally represented? To the extent that the latter is the "real" reason for elections, then I think there's a strong argument against excluding even infants from the franchise (obviously, actually carried out by their parents, with families free to choose at what point the child was old enough to decide for herself).

I'd put it this way: if vote-from-birth was the norm and someone proposed eliminating it, I'm confident we would all think that was a terrible injustice. I'm not sure I'm for vote-from-birth, but I've been floating the idea here for a while now and haven't found the arguments against it very convincing at all. As far as teenage voting, well, I've made this argument before -- if high school and even middle school kids are allowed to electioneer, and they are and they do, then I can't imagine why they are not allowed to vote.


  1. I absolutely agree with you on this. I'm still bitter about being 17 during the 2000 elections, an election that arguably affected me and my peers more than any other group, given the two wars and economic crash that happened during Bush's tenure. I probably would have voted for him then, but at least I'd feel I had an opportunity to influence it. I suspect upcoming elections will have a serious effect on the future of today's young people as well, and I'd like them to be able to have a say in what they want to see happen.

  2. For very small children (pre-literate ones, in any case), what you're really talking about isn't giving kids equal representation; you're talking about giving people with children more representation than single people get. That seems unfair to me. You had a child, so your opinions count double (assuming there are only two of you in the voting booth) what other people's do? With teenagers, your point of view is much more arguable; a 15-year-old and even a 12-year-old isn't necessarily just a copy of their parents (who may not agree in any case), any more than their parents are a copy of their own parents.

  3. After Tom Tancredo charged that Barack Obama was put into office by "people who could not even spell the word 'vote,'" I - an Obama voter - challenged him to a public spelling bee. He did not accept the challenge.

  4. TN,
    I doubt one voter (you) is exactly representative of every voter. So, your spelling bee challenge is meaningless.

    For all instead of lowering the voting age, we would be much better served if we raised the voting age and/or added requirements for voting. There are hundreds of options that would be better than our current minimum standard of fogging a mirror.

  5. Letting parents vote for their children would violate one person, one vote. Practically, it would also introduce a number of new political conflicts without any obvious benefit.

    Even when minors are rational enough to vote for themselves, they shouldn’t be allowed to for one simple reason -- they’re not free. Minors are subject to the direction, control and protection of their parents. For a number of very good reasons, personal freedom has always been seen as an essential part of voting.

  6. We have far more serious flaws with our system of government than whether 4 year olds can vote or run for Congress. After those other problems are fixed, get back to me and I'll consider these ideas.

  7. I was told I counted as an adult member of my community at age twelve. That seems about right. (Of course, men shouldn't be allowed to vote until thirteen.)

  8. If nothing else, letting schoolchildren vote would make the politician/school visit photo-op far more interesting. Probably get better funded schools too.

  9. Letting teenagers personally vote seems like a reasonable idea, but letting parents vote on behalf of the even younger seems wildly mistaken.

    If your goal is to represent the interests of children, parents are in no way effective proxies for these interests. Parents are usually relatively benevolent, but they have their own interests and would vote according to those interests and not those of their children. And, of course, there are child protection laws for a reason: some parents are deeply antagonistic to their children's interests.

  10. Ron E.,

    You are, of course, correct, but it's still interesting (to me at least) to think through.

    Rip, Couves, and UG,

    If you're thinking of voting as expressing interests, I'm pretty sure I disagree. Yes, parents may not actually act in their kids' interests, but that's true of lots of things that we empower parents to do on behalf of their kids, so I don't see that as a major objection. And it's precisely in order to fulfill, not violate, one person, one vote, since even infants are people too -- a parent and a kid *should* have two votes, not one, between them, if elections are about representing interests.

  11. See, I would say that for the purposes of voting, infants really aren't people. They will be one day become people who deserve representation--if they can walk into a ballot box on their own and manage to operate the machinery, by all means vote away--but pre-verbal infants just can't be said to have political interests or opinions in any meaningful sense. What's the difference between allowing an infant to vote and allowing a fetus to vote? Should pregnant women get an extra ballot?

  12. And I'm posting this a little tongue-in-cheek, so apologies for threadjacking.

  13. I'd second that, actually. Cognitively speaking infants aren't really that more advanced than other species. The obvious difference is that they're fast learners and they'll quickly become some of the smartest creatures on the planet, but in the meanwhile infants are very dumb. If parents can vote on behalf of infants, then why not let people vote on behalf of their pets?

    Although yeah, that argument really only applies to pre-verbal infants, which is an extremely mild counterargument, since letting toddlers vote would still be pretty radical.

  14. Actually, vote-from-birth might help in some small way with the issues raised in the subsequent thread on this blog: we all realize that the elderly are a frightening bloc to alienate, which contributes to their outsized political power (and contributes to the difficulty of reigning in entitlements).

    Doubtful that the toddler lobby could ever blunt the political clout of old folks, but it couldn't hurt to try, yes?

  15. Jonathan,

    I’ll amend that: “one [free] person, one vote.”
    I’m a sucker for old-school liberalism on this one -- voting is the freely expressed will of free citizens. I would be open to giving the vote to emancipated minors, but children are otherwise under a form of social and legal bondage that temporarily keeps them from the highest expression of their citizenship.

    Do you imagine school teachers lining up students to vote (with parental permission slips in hand) after gym class? I want to know just how frightening Bernsteinian democracy might be. ;)

  16. Fascinating post and thread; thanks to all.

    I once heard a state legislator talk about "rights, duties and privileges". The "right" to vote was once restricted largely to white, property-owning men 21 and over. Women were considered dependents---which was one reason they were not allowed to vote.

    The voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 largely because it was seen as unfair that the "duty" of military service at age 18.

  17. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences had a recent special issue on Child Citizenship with some discussion of adolescent voting. I think the "interests" argument Jonathan is making is pretty compelling, but I also think the "rationality" argument against breaks down pretty darn quickly as a clear distinction between adults and children -- and as a society we seem to reject things like literacy tests for voting that might distinguish those with the "capacity" to vote from those without, so applying this only to children is weird, at best. (To be clear, I think the whole idea of making that distinction is pretty repulsive and rests, again, on a mistaken view of what human rational deliberative capacities actually look like in the world).

    Yglesias has made the point a few times that poverty in this country is overwhelmingly experienced by (disenfranchised) children, which is at least a partial explanation for why poverty is so ignored by politicians.

  18. Voting is in part an expressive act. You vote your mind, you vote your principles, you vote your convictions.

    Voting is not only about interests; people sometimes vote against interest.

    To vote your mind you must have one. I can see reducing the voting age to 13 or so, but before that do we really think? Would we do anything other than parrot the views we hear from others?


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