Kids Are Citizens, Let Them Vote

by Jamelle Bouie

Should kids have the right to vote? Politico's Michael Kinsley says yes, sort of:

Or rather, extend the franchise to children, but let parents vote on their underage children's behalf. In effect, parents would get an extra vote for every child. How would this solve the entitlement problem? It wouldn't, directly. But it would revise the allocation of political power to more closely reflect who has the most at stake. It would reward long-term thinking rather than short-term thinking. Right now seniors are all-powerful because they vote in such large numbers, while young people must rely on the good will of their parents and grandparents to protect their interests.

Now, this is not a good proposal. Children and teenagers are the legal responsibility of their parents, but they aren't extensions of their will; parents have no claim on the thoughts, feelings and beliefs of their children. What's more, there is no guarantee that giving a vote to children will reward long-term thinking, especially if "long-term thinking" is just a synonym for Michael Kinsley's policy views (which I suspect is the case).

If we were to count children as a vote—with parents making the actual decision at the ballot box—odds are good that it would be irrelevant for long-term thinking. Voters mostly decide on the basis of partisanship and personal economic conditions; in all likelihood, parents would vote as they do now, but with a second (or third, or fourth) vote to use. Which is unfair, and seems unwise.

On the other hand, if the idea is to treat children and teenagers as full persons, with their own beliefs, desires and comprehensive conception of the good, then extending the vote—for their actual use—would be an excellent idea.

I would lower the voting age to 15. It wouldn't include "children" per say, but it would work, given the graduated privileges we give to young people as they reach adulthood. From your moment of birth, you are a citizen, but at 15, society would recognize you as a citizen with the capacity to make decisions about her community and country. Especially since, at this point in your schooling, you are inundated with civics and history education. With the opportunity to vote, teenagers might be more enthusiastic about their history and their government.

As a practical matter, this would nicely coincide—in most states—with eligibility for a learner's permit for driving. It makes sense to register someone to vote at the same time that they receive their first form of government-issued identification. That said, learning to drive would not be a requirement for voter registration.

Of course, there would be logistics to sort out. Would voting days become holidays to allow the opportunity for teenagers? How would we deal with the issue of electioneering on school grounds? And how does this affect are view of kids vis a vis the criminal justice system? If a 16 year old can vote, does that mean that he can stand trial as an adult?

But we can sort those out. The simple fact is that kids are citizens like anyone else, and they have as much of a right to participate as any adult. It would be good for democracy if politicians actively reached out to children for their beliefs and preferences, and instead of making up shit about what "the children would want."

Presented by

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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