Monday, October 31, 2011

Kids Vote

Kevin Drum weighs in on the issue of kids and teens voting today, and argues that it's a "silly question" and that
Kids can't vote for the same reason they can't do lots of things: because millions of years of human history informs us that children aren't capable of looking out for themselves. They need adult supervision. We make the same judgment toward others who are deemed unable to look after themselves — the mentally ill, elderly people suffering from dementia, etc. — so this is hardly something unique to children.
Karl Smith also got in on the Kids Vote fun.

But we don't treat these the same as the voting case. We do let children have bank accounts and invest money and have all sorts of other adult activities; we just require that a parent or other responsible person act for them as their agent. Voting is different; we just don't give them the vote at all.

As I said last time this came up, to the extent that we think of politics and democracy in liberal, Lockean terms -- democracy is justified because it allows everyone's interests to be represented -- then I really can't see the case against vote-from-birth, with parents administering the vote up through some at least teenage years. My view is that we think it's weird because we don't have it, but if for whatever reason vote-from-birth had been instituted centuries ago we would all find it perfectly logical and regard any attempt to take it away as outrageous and anti-democratic. The only question would be at what age it's appropriate for kids to begin voting for themselves...there are a lot of reasonable ways you could handle that: a fixed age rule, a fixed age rule plus some sort of test-in for those below that age who want to exercise their own choice, or just leave it informally to each family to deal with it on their own. Longer liberal argument for vote-from-birth here.

On the other hand, I do think there's a reasonable argument against vote-from-birth grounded in more republican views of politics. If justifications for democracy are based on the inherent value of political participation, then it makes some sense to exclude those who cannot "really" participate because they're not yet able to appreciate the experience. However, voting itself is relatively less important in that version of politics, and in my view is best seen as sort of a training wheels introduction to real political action -- and therefore, I think, quite appropriate for high school kids and perhaps middle school kids.

The only version of democracy that clearly doesn't support an expansion of the franchise from where it is now would be a good government version that justifies democracy on the basis of informed individuals, thinking for themselves, being the best way to make good decisions about public policy. Allowing 14 year olds to vote makes no sense in that version of democracy -- but then again, I think it's an entirely mistaken version, so it doesn't carry any weight with me at all.

On the practical question, if you can call speculation on the effects of a reform that's not going to happen a practical question...

Kids Vote supporter Matt Yglesias said over the weekend that he would expect turnout for children to be low, the way that the youngest voters now have the lowest turnout. I'm not sure that's true, even given the rule of allowing kids to vote only for themselves but as soon as they choose to do so. In practice, what you would get is turnout up through at least high school that's driven almost entirely by parents' decisions. Now, it would be capped at parent turnout levels (except in the extremely unlikely case that schools organized it as an in-school activity), since not too many 7 year olds or even 14 year olds are going to go off to vote by themselves. But I'd guess that quite a few parents would make it a family activity, and virtually all politically active parents who vote by mail or absentee would also have their kids vote (that is, vote for them). My guess is that turnout for 6-12 year olds would be quite a bit higher than current turnout for 18 year olds. On the really speculative side, one might think about two things: whether voting early would make party even more inherited than it already is, and one also might think about how acquiring the voting habit early in life might affect turnout for adults years later.

The other question here, one that is obviously relevant to the (non-existent at present) hopes Kids Vote has of actually getting mainstream political support and being enacted, is partisan or political effects. Jonathan Bradley tweets: "Isn't the political system biased enough in favor of families?" It's true that anything that makes people more settled tends to increase voting turnout and participation, so it may in fact be true that the political system produces a bias in favor of those married with children over young singles -- but I'd say the more important bias in the system is in favor of older people. Of course, any kind of successful franchise expansion depends on a sort of oddball circumstance, in which the people currently in office believe that they will be helped, or at least not harmed, by enlarging the electorate beyond the people who voted for them in the first place.

Just to be clear: I'm at this point in favor of a lower voting age, and haven't heard a winning argument against going down somewhere around 14 give or take a couple of years; I'm intrigued, but not entirely sold, on vote-from-birth. And I'd either abolish completely the minimum age for holding office or set it at the voting age.


  1. JB:

    I teach at a high school with many immigrant students, and children of immigrants. I certainly agree that many of my students are more qualified to vote than are many adults. But, how would your proposal work for children who are citizens, but whose parents are not? Would the parents get a vote as a proxy for their kids, but not for themselves? Would children who are not citizens get no votes at all?

  2. Nice post!

    I disagree with Bradley on the bias of the system toward families. If anything, I'd prefer a greater bias toward families, because parents have the most incentive of anyone in society to think long-term about political choices, even when they are being 100% self-interested. I recall a think-piece that, rather than supporting kid voting, sought to include kids in the representational scheme through household size: each household would get the same number of votes as it had people. Totally different concept than kid voting, but perhaps similar in effect.

  3. Surely you could also object to "Kids vote" on the grounds that parents do not in fact validly represent the kids' interests? (As the kids don't really represent their own interests either, this implies that there is simply no way of getting kids into the democratic process. Similar arguments would apply, e.g., to the voting rights of moose.) This POV gains some plausibility from the observation that the political views of 18-year-olds are much more left-wing, by and large, than those of married 40-somethings!

  4. Good question...children who are not citizens don't get a vote, just like adults. But children of adults who are not citizens -- in vote-from-birth, that's a tricky one, isn't it? I suppose I would support allowing their parents to vote on their behalf anyway, but that certainly wouldn't be popular. You could have the parents designate a citizen to exercise the vote for them. Of course, once the kid is old enough, it's not a problem, although presumably turnout for that group would be awful.

    In other scenarios, such as a 12 or 14 year old voting minimum or, perhaps, no minimum but also no proxy voting (so smart 7 year olds could vote for themselves, but if you can't do it yourself then you don't get a vote), then there's much less of a problem. Although again, presumably turnout would be terrible for sub-18 whose parents don't vote for whatever reason.

  5. Unless someone can vote on their own, they shouuldn't be able to vote. Nobody should be able to vote for anyone else, ever, period. Everybody should always get one vote. This is one of the basic pillars of any true democracy.

  6. Sarang,

    Two things. One is that young people generally tend to echo more intensely the current political mood (IOW they're not always more left-wing). Also, and again just on the representing interests argument, I'm confident that kids would be better represented if their parents voted for them than if they get no vote at all.



  7. JB: If I were a kid, and wanted to vote Democrat, but my parents vote Republican, I'm very sure they do so because they believe it's the best choice, and therefore they'd be almost certain to vote Republican "for me". I would think in this case I'm worse represented than if nobody got my vote.

  8. I can see a very good case for letting younger teens vote. What I don't see from a practical perspective is why any election reformer would want to spend effort trying to get this enacted at a time when Republicans are engaged in a nationwide assault on the voting rights of many adults. Making sure adults aren't blocked from voting by partisan voter ID laws and other tricks is surely more important.

  9. In response to Drum, to be fair, my years of experience have taught me many Republican voters aren't capable of looking out for their own interests. We still let them vote.

  10. I find it possibly odd that institutional, big-money interests don't push harder for at least earlier-teen voting, especially on the left.

    This blog speaks at length about how the kingmaker/big money forces decide a nominee in the "invisible primary"; the inherent problem with that - if there is one; maybe Cain would have been an example before this latest fiasco - is that at some point the power is turned over to the hoi polloi in the visible primary, many of whom just haven't been paying attention to the machinations of the kingmakers, and may go for Herman Cain cause they like what Bill Hemmer said about him on Fox this morning.

    But kids who vote should generally not be the disinterested ambulatory hamburgers that end up deciding elections. For kids, voting should not come second-nature or as a social obligation, the way it does for disinterested but obliged adults.

    As such, one would think that the big-money would prefer kids who vote (as long as their ideology is appropriately aligned).

    Did I get this wrong?

  11. Great post. You recommend any good reading that summarizes the various views of democracy? I've gotten it a bit from reading your blog over the past year, but it would be helpful to see it all together in one place.

  12. JB: there is no reason whatsoever to expect kids' "interests" on culture-war issues to be closely linked to their parents', and some reason to expect their interests to be _worse_ represented. (I did not mean to imply that kids would always be more left-wing, just that there are always large cohort-based differences of opinion on such issues, and one's "interest" _is_ one's opinion.)

    Suppose you gave all parents of 17-year-olds the vote on behalf of their kids. It seems to me that, more often than not, this would lead to outcomes that are further from the outcomes the kids desire than if they were given no vote at all. (One can repeat this thought expt. wherever you draw the line for voting-for-oneself.) If I'm wrong on the empirics of this, fine; if your counter-argument is that the voting patterns of kids are against their interests, why not -- on the same grounds -- let Thomas Frank vote for all of Kansas?

  13. This would vastly tilt the playing field in favor of Republicans, since "married with kids" is one of the most Republican groups of the electorate.

  14. I don't agree that parents have their kids best interests at heart.

    Accept for a nanosecond the deficit hawk line about not saddling our children with our debts. Then parents shouldn't want to do that. Are they about to give up their various child-raising deductions? Are people with children more likely to vote for deficit-lowering policies?

    On some issues, I expect parents to represent the best interest of the child (as they see them), quite possibly better than a child could (like in a vote to determine the length of the school year). On others, they are simply incapable of representing their interests.

    Yes, 18 is a somewhat arbitrary cutoff. But, I just can't get around the idea that we give parents an additional vote just because they have a child.

  15. I also find interesting the argument, per Drum (and many others), that disenfranchisement of youth has worked for several thousand years of human civilization, so why change now? Interesting, because Drum apparently doesn't realize that there's a germane difference between the developed world today and the previous several thousand years.

    A difference about which progressives like Drum, and really all of us, ought to be tremendously proud: the historic manner in which the elderly, who for all of human history were left to die on the hillside with unwanted babies and the infirm, are sustained through entitlement programs. A sustenance that surely represents a Great Leap Forward...but also a source of tremendous political power for the elderly.

    If kids voting was unnecessary for the first several thousand years of human history, might that be in part due to their vast numbers resulting in representation by default? Don't we all, including Kevin Drum, recognize that the tremendous political power of the elderly is a ginormous causal factor in the August debt brinksmanship, and the second round to come this month?

    I suppose there are good arguments against youth voting, but basing it on "its worked for thousands of years" willfully ignores the elephant in the room, entitlements, which quite understandably threatens to keep lack of youth enfranchisement from working in the future.

  16. Correction: I meant to say that entitlements represent 'a' great leap forward, as in a huge improvement, but obviously not the Great Leap Forward, which ended up being more or less like the fate of the aged for the pre-20th century era of civilized humanity.

  17. My model of democracy is that it works best when the voter is (and sees himself as) a trustee, empowered to vote to further the laws and interests of the country as a whole. He casts his vote for the party he thinks will best benefit the common good. And it works worst when the voter is (and sees himself as) a client, empowered to vote to further his own interests. He casts his vote for the party who offers him the most of his neighbour's possessions. The former is the only kind of democracy worth having, the latter is mob rule.

    The question then becomes, are children likely to be good trustees? The answer is implicit in the post.

  18. Just what we need. Shows like "Hardball" and "The Factor" geared to the kiddie set. Bound to be even more conscientiously high-quality, and not at all demented. Expect to see a baby boom among the evangelical set. Big time. Funding for public education would go up, but the push to privatize would be similarly enlivened as the school environment becomes more existentially political.

  19. To Anonymous@6:35 AM: as I write this, the NYSE is imploding, and conventional wisdom says that the reason is Papandreou's choice to put Greek austerity to a national referndum. The thinking is that the Greek people, contra your "trustee model", will not see austerity as best for Greece or Europe, rather they will strike down austerity because it sucks for them personally.

    To be sure, the market doesn't always get these things right. Just wanted to note that, to the extent you have faith in your trustee model, we are - right now - in a glorious stock buying opportunity.

    If you buy the trustee model, of course.

  20. We don't keep mentally ill people or people with dementia from voting if they want to, do we? Kevin Drum's analogy seems based on a falsehood from the start.

  21. rosmar: Sometimes we do, sometimes we don't. It depends on the state.

  22. CSH:

    I think you misunderstand me.

    I am not saying that all democracies are ideal trusteeships. Rather, I am saying that is the best kind of democracy, and indeed, the only kind worth having. Certainly, many democracies are full of voters destroying the common good for private gain, and Greece is a classic example. My point is that every electoral reform should be seen in that light. Does it bring us closer to an electorate of responsible trustees, or does it bring us closer to an electorate of irresponsible clients?


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Who links to my website?