Discover more from Kitchen Counter
Give children the vote
It's time we took democracy seriously
Most people who say they support democracy turn out not to. Not really. This is sad but not surprising, because the way these people resist universal suffrage is so common as to be uncontroversial. Instead, it is being for universal suffrage that raises eyebrows. We find ourselves in the perverse position, living in self-described democracies, where taking democracy seriously is considered radical.
I’m not talking about the fact that many democracies disenfranchise citizens when they are incarcerated, or overseas, or happen to live in the wrong jurisdiction. All these are pretty regularly recognised as acts of undemocratic overreach. I’m talking about the fact that wherever you go, no country gives young humans – from childbirth onwards – the right to vote.
Thanks for reading Kitchen Counter! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
This ubiquitous failure of enfranchisement should embarrass us all. It betrays our unseriousness, our comfort with subjugation, and our fair-weather friendship to those foundational values: egalitarianism, humanism, and freedom.
And for what? What causes those eyebrows to raise? Only one counterargument is ever given, and it is a bad one. It is the argument that children lack the mental capacity.
I consider this argument cynical (the same people who support placing conditions on voting rights claim to support universal suffrage); misguided (mental capacity should not bear on your suffrage); and pernicious (the “mental capacity” argument was once deployed against women, the indigenous, and black people, to name only a few groups, and we weaken democracy by entertaining it at all.)
Still, none of these failings are important for our purposes. The primary reason to ignore the mental capacity argument is that it is not relevant.
We have for centuries recognised the legal category of guardianship. Seeing that some citizens lack the faculties to protect and pursue their own interests, we grant others (most commonly parents) the power to act on their behalf. So it should be in voting. The way to ensure universal suffrage when it comes to age is to allow guardians to cast votes on behalf of their children until the children can vote for themselves (I suggest age 12, though I’d be open to going younger).
Whenever I suggest this, the reactions are more extreme than when it first seemed I wanted to have 2 year olds scrawling randomly on ballots in crayon. There is a profound reaction against ‘giving multiple votes to parents.’ Sometimes, opponents claim this is more undemocratic than denying children the right to vote at all.
These reactions are driven, I think, by a status quo bias on one hand and a misapprehension about guardianship on the other. Take this analogy. When the state distributes welfare payments to new parents, the funds are in fact distributed on behalf of the child. The parent receives and spends the funds, but they do so in their capacity as guardian.
Similarly, when a single mother of 6 turns up at the voting booth and casts 7 votes for Republican Party, it is not the case that one woman is exercising 7 times the vote of you, the childless reader.She is voting once for herself and once each on behalf of her children. To see this clearly, compare to the status quo. If an election were held today, that same single mother would vote once for herself and 0 times for each of her 6 children. As a representative of a family of 7, she currently has one seventh the voting power of you.
I acknowledge that after a lifetime living under restricted democracy, as we all do, this way of thinking can feel counterintuitive. Because we don’t tend to think of children as being able to express political interests, we easily forget that they have political interests. In our current system, we expect that those who can vote will “look after” those who cannot. But this is not possible. Parents simply lack the voting power to adequately represent their children.
Even now, I sense that many readers will remain unconvinced. That’s no surprise – the disfranchisement of young people feels innocuous. The same was true for the disfranchisement of women; black people; the indigenous, and other groups. Refusing to expand the right to vote always feels justified in the moment. It’s only later that social attitudes change – that what was once accepted is seen to be perverse. But in the moment it’s hard to see the problem. Of course we don’t need to give women the vote. They lack the mental capacity. We men have got it covered.
Well, we men didn’t have it covered. An immensity of democratic expression went unvoiced. In turn, an immensity of democratic interests went unregistered. For thousands of years the political and material needs of women went unmet. That is the consequence of betraying our purported democratic values.
So it is today. The political and material needs of our children go unmet. We have created a system that gives political voice to everyone except those who need the most protection. The outcome is a society that is at war with the family. Childbirth – a period of extreme financial cost – comes just as men and women have their lowest expected income and their least accumulated wealth. Even in the richest societies in history, our lack of support for families drives children into poverty. It is not an accident that childbirth causes poverty – it is a necessary outcome of our political economy.
The financial pressures that weigh upon children and young families have, of course, immense social repercussions: lifetime poor health outcomes; crime and antisocial behaviour; homelessness and itineracy. And this is to say nothing of the incalculable opportunity costs of letting brilliant people languish. We have essentially created an environment that costs us all an immense amount of money, and causes families an immense amount of stress, because we have failed to protect the interests of the very young. All this, I claim, is downstream from our refusal to enfranchise children.
I use this example consciously. It is my suspicion, one I will only entertain via footnote, that what really motivates the objection to voting-by-guardianship is not an objection to malportioned voting itself but an objection to the types of people who may most make use of it. If families in Park Slope or Toorak or Chelsea were larger than the average, I suspect my proposal would find kinder ears.