Why Children and Youth Should Have the Right to Vote: An Argument for Proxy-Claim Suffrage Author(s): John Wall


Why Children and Youth Should Have the Right to Vote: An Argument for Proxy-Claim
Author(s): John Wall
Children, Youth and Environments,
Vol. 24, No. 1 (2014), pp. 108-123
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Children, Youth and Environments 24(1), 2014

Why Children and Youth Should Have the Right to
An Argument for Proxy-Claim Suffrage

John Wall
Departments of Philosophy and Religion, and Childhood Studies
Rutgers University
Camden, New Jersey

Wall, John (2014). “Why Children and Youth Should Have the Right to Vote: An
Argument for Proxy-Claim Suffrage.” Children, Youth and Environments 24(1):
108-123. Retrieved [date] from:

This article examines recent debates about extending the right to vote to children
and youth under the age of 18. It uses postmodern political theory to argue that
concerns about children’s insufficient capabilities and potential to harm themselves
and others are unfounded, and that, except in the earliest years, the right to vote
for minors would promote the full and just functioning of democracies.

Keywords: democracy, children’s rights, suffrage, vote

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Many now recognize, at least in principle, that the third of humanity who are under
18 years of age ought to possess a degree of political rights. Children and youth are
citizens of their countries deserving voices in the public arenas that affect their
lives. Indeed, children have gained an increased political standing in many parts of
the world, especially since the near-universal ratification of the 1989 Convention on
the Rights of Child (CRC), which includes political rights such as to free speech and
assembly. At the same time, however, children and youth are almost universally
denied what it arguably the most basic political right of all, namely the right to
vote. This right has gradually been extended to other groups such as the poor,
ethnic minorities, and women over the past century and a half. Nevertheless,
despite a growing movement of young people and child suffrage advocates, the
right to vote for minors remains little discussed in the academy and largely
unthinkable in the general public.

This article uses political theory to argue that all but the youngest children and
youth need and deserve the right to vote just as much as do adults. Because it is
largely assumed that minors should not vote, I make this argument by
deconstructing seven of the most prevalent scholarly and practical objections.
These objections fall into two categories: that children and youth lack sufficient
capacities to vote, and that their voting would cause themselves or others harm. I
conclude with a practical proposal for what I call a “proxy-claim” vote in which child
and youth citizens of democratic countries should be provided, first, a proxy vote at
birth to be exercised by a parent or guardian that, second, children would be able
to claim for themselves when they so choose. The theoretical basis for this
argument, which I do not develop here, is the postmodern concept that political
subjects are not autonomous individuals but rather interdependent and culturally
diverse responders to one another’s differences of lived experience (Wall 2010;
Wall and Dar 2011). More broadly, democracies are meant to represent the demos
or “people,” and this should also include children.

Of course, democratic rights depend on a great deal more than the formal act of
voting. They also involve informal rights such as free speech, assembly, a free
press, access to information, non-discrimination, and much else. Here, I simply
wish to make the case that formal suffrage is a minimum democratic requirement
for all. As for adults, not all children will benefit equally from voting, for age is only
one of many political variables alongside class, ethnicity, race, gender, and much
else. Nor are the reasons for children’s suffrage necessarily identical to those for
women and other formerly disenfranchised groups. Nevertheless, it is time for
longstanding assumptions underlying children’s exclusion from voting to be

Arguments about Capacity
Many objections to children and youth voting are variations on the idea that
children lack the requisite political capacities. In terms of political theory, these are
“deontological” arguments, meaning they are based on claims about human deon or
natural necessity. Such objections recall Locke’s view, at the very dawn of modern
democratic theory, that political rights require fully developed reason (1823).
Rousseau (1947) similarly argues that minors lack the basic rational judgment to
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resist political manipulation, and Kant (1974) claims that minors lack the autonomy
or “self-rule” to overcome mere irrational desire. In fact, none of the architects of
modern democratic theory thought children should have any rights at all (Wall
2012). While the notion of children’s rights now enjoys wide acceptance, even the
great twentieth century democratic theorist John Rawls simply assumes that
suffrage should belong only to adults (1996, 245).

Central to this legacy is the idea that children and youth lack sufficient political
“competence,” meaning the capacity for political reason as expressed in such
abilities as public critical thinking, discourse with others, and the ability to weigh
society-wide outcomes of decisions. Archard, for example, argues against minors’
suffrage on the grounds that

we do not know what a child would choose if possessed of adult rational
powers of choice because what makes a child a child is just her lack of such
powers (her ignorance, inconstant wants, inconsistent beliefs and limited
powers of ratiocination) (2003, 53).

As the theorist Habermas puts it, children do not possess the “communicative
competence” to engage in political procedures of “reciprocal perspective taking”
(1993, 64). Or, as Barber claims, children lack the core political skill of “civility” or
the ability to deliberate with others in an open and respectful way (1999, 42-43).

There are several problems with this competence argument. First, competence is
not in fact a criterion in any democratic society for the right to vote. No adult has to
prove their competence to vote, and many adults profoundly lack capacities for
deliberation, reciprocity, and civility. As Franklin notes, “the presence or absence of
rationality does not justify the exclusion of children from political rights but the
exclusion, if anyone, of the irrational” (1986, 34). If a particular level of
competence were indeed necessary for suffrage, then one could argue that many
schizophrenic, senile, low IQ, or even just thoughtless adults should be denied it;
while many intelligent, politically active, or even just ordinary children and youth
should not. As Schrag points out, the bar of competence “might be used to limit
adult suffrage or to grant some adults more votes than others” (2004, 371).

Second, voting competence would be difficult to define, at least for all but the
youngest of children. One would have to determine who gets to define competence
in the first place; how it should be related to life experience, social situation, and
power relations; and whether it can be defined in the same way across different
cultures. How would one decide, for example, whether a 6-year old in rural India
who supports his family by mending bicycles is competent or not to vote? The
notion that children have to “develop” into political competence flies in the face of
findings in the sociology of childhood that children are not merely potential social
actors but social “agents” in their own right (James and Prout 1990; Mouritsen and
Qvortrup 2002; Pufall and Unsworth 2004). If nothing else, it is clear that political
competence does not suddenly spring into being upon a person turning 18 years
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Were voting competence to be defined, it should remain democratically inclusive by
involving only basic capacities for understanding political options and making
political choices. As studies in the area of medical competency have shown,

African, Asian, and South American research projects demonstrate highly
developed competencies among young children [with diabetes] who are
forced to live fairly independently, and in the face of adversity. These
findings suggest that advantaged, sheltered children in the richer societies
have latent capacities that they need not develop, so that at least down to
the age of four, the person who is in the body, and is the body, can have
unique insights that may be essential for informed decision-making
(Alderson, Sutcliffe and Curtis 2006, 32 and 33).

Similarly, a competence bar for voting could not be defined absent attention to a
wide range of situational, cultural, and personal factors beyond the very crude
measure of simple number of years in existence. I will later suggest that the only
secure indicator of voting competence is the choice itself to vote.

Third, it is likely that children and youth possess significantly greater political
competence than they are generally given credit for. Prior to women’s suffrage,
most men and women assumed that men were the distinctly political gender.
Indeed, having greater opportunities to exercise political agency, this may even
have been the case empirically. But in reality, once given the vote, women
demonstrated this argument’s circularity, for men only appeared more competent
because only men had been able to exercise their voting competencies in the first
place. Likewise, were children and youth actually able to vote, their apparent voting
competence would certainly increase. Hart and Atkins have shown that American
children already possess the political skill, tolerance, and civic interest to vote by
age 16 (2011, 208-12), and this in a country where children lead highly privatized
lives. In those countries that have in fact lowered the voting age to 16, youth have
enthusiastically risen to the occasion (Hurst 2003; Folkes 2004; KRÄTZÄ 2012) and
indeed proven more likely to vote than young adults (Wagner, Johann and
Kritzinger 2012). Excepting babies and toddlers, children of all ages have marched
with Gandhi, desegregated American schools, fought for a cleaner environment,
and much else, suggesting the presence of significant untapped political capacities.

The most obvious example of this underlying competence can be found in the 30 or
so children’s parliaments that now exist around the world. Here, children from ages
5 to 17 elect local representatives who in turn elect regional, national, and
sometimes international representatives to fight for children’s concerns and speak
before adult parliaments. While many children’s parliaments are largely educational
or tokenistic, many also provide significant political powers to youth and children as
young as 5 (Wall 2012). Some even provide children parts of budgets (Cabannes
2006). Studies of children’s parliaments demonstrate that quite young children are
fully capable of debating and voting upon major political issues such as health
provision, non-discrimination, educational infrastructure, child abuse, citizen birth
certificates, violence in schools, gender equity, environmental protections, and
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much else (Austin 2010; Conrad 2009; Sarkar and Mendoza 2005). Even if one
could argue, therefore, that the very youngest of children lack competencies to
vote, it is evident that any specific age of competence is both problematic to define
and younger than historically assumed.

Competence is closely tied to knowledge. For the sake of argument, I am
distinguishing competent skills to vote from the knowledge or understanding
needed to vote from an informed perspective. Chan and Clayton (2006) argue
against minors voting on the grounds that they have not acquired sufficient
“knowledge of the political system, and understanding of the nature and
significance of issues that are the subject of public and political debate” (542).
Similarly, the UK Electoral Commission reaffirmed the voting age of 18 as the age
of “the development of sufficient social awareness” (Cowley and Denver 2004, 60).
The knowledge required to vote depends, it is argued, on understanding such
things as political systems, alternative positions on major issues, and the impact of
decisions on diverse populations. Even if children had the competence to vote, it
would take time and education for them to gain the knowledge to do so responsibly.

Here, however, we again find that knowledge is not in reality a suffrage
requirement for any other group. Voting could not, for example, demand basic
literacy, since many democracies in the world (including the largest democracy,
India) have significantly illiterate populations and voting is often carried out there in
pictures. When tests of knowledge have in fact been used, as for example in the
Jim Crow American South, they have proven unjustly disenfranchising. Adults
routinely demonstrate fundamental deficiencies in political knowledge without
thereby being denied the right to vote. And, of course, as for voting competence,
voting knowledge would certainly increase among children had they in fact the right
to exercise it. The most important kind of knowledge needed to vote responsibly is
knowledge of political alternatives and how these relate to one’s own and other’s
lives. But no one possesses complete understanding in this area and it is difficult to
argue that older children and youth lack it inherently.

The strongest knowledge argument against minors voting has to do with
understanding of political consequences. The more experience one has in the world,
the more likely one is to recognize political effects on diverse lives. For example, an
electorate should contemplate the heavy costs of going to war. But this argument
also fails the child-exclusion test, at least when it comes to all but the very
youngest. Nobody in a democracy has full experience of all the issues they must
vote on. Rather, voting makes use of an aggregate of common experience. With
war, for example, some adults have more understanding of it than others and some
children, such as child soldiers and child war victims, know a great deal more about
it than most adults. Similarly, you do not have to be an adult to understand
poverty, poor health care systems, or racial injustice. Given the importance of
casting a wide democratic net, and given the great variance among people’s real-
world experiences and information, the knowledge threshold for voting should be
minimal rather than maximal. As postmodern political theorists have argued,
though not in relation specifically to children, democracies do not represent simple
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summations of knowledge but rather conversations among diverse groups
concerning their differences of experience (Benhabib 2004; Laclau and Mouffe
2001; Young 2000).

A final capability argument is that children are so strongly influenced by parents,
teachers, mass media, and corporations that they lack the capacity for voting
independence. Since minors are highly reliant on adults for their survival and well-
being, their political judgments are susceptible to powerful adult manipulation. This
fact is recognized implicitly in the movement mentioned above of children’s
parliaments, since they are deliberately separated from adult parliaments in order
in part to protect children from adult interference (John 2003).

One difficulty with this argument, however, is that it assumes that political
independence characterizes adults. This modernist notion ignores the reality that no
one thinks and acts independently of relationships, families of origin, cultures,
socio-economic background, historical context, mass media environment, and much
else. Even husbands and wives have been found to influence each other’s votes
(Kan and Heath 2003). As Franklin observes, “to isolate one group within society
and insist that they alone should display the mythical qualities of latterday
Robinson Crusoes, or else be denied political rights, is unjust” (1986, 36). The
concept of political dependency was used previously to deny voting rights to
minorities, women, and the poor (Wall 2014). Children may be more dependent on
others in certain respects—financially, educationally, and emotionally—but all
human beings are inter-dependent across the many dimensions of their lives
(Woodhouse 2008).

What is more, children’s dependence in the private sphere should not be confused
with their dependence in the public sphere. In one of the first arguments for “the
right to vote for people of any age,” Holt suggests that

a society which had changed enough in its way of looking at young children
to be willing to grant them the right to vote would be one in which few
people would want or try to coerce a child’s vote and in which most people
would feel this was a very bad and wrong thing to do (1975, 155 and 169).

Were children coerced to vote in particular ways, this would be a problem with
adults, not children, and one preventable by similar prohibitions as against political
interference generally. The reality is that children are likely to vote along similar
lines to their parents, just as are spouses and members of the same social, ethnic,
and cultural groups. It has been shown, for example, that young adult voters in the
UK vote for the same party as their parents 89 to 92 percent of the time (Elcock
1983). But, as attested again by children’s parliaments, none of this means that
even the very youngest of children cannot assert their own distinctive political
demands: for better schools, clean drinking water, stronger environmental
protections, and much else. As a simple matter of political justice, “no persons,
actions, or aspects of a person’s life should be forced into privacy” (Young 1990,
120). Children and adults are equally dependent on just public orders
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Arguments about Harms
A second set of objections to children and youth voting revolves, not around basic
capacities, but around potentially resulting harms, whether to minors themselves,
adults, or larger communities. These arguments are “teleological” in that they
concern political life’s teloi or desired ends and consequences. Voting provides
citizens with real power, however limited, over their own and others’ present and
future well-being. It is possible that, however expressive of basic competence, child
and youth suffrage would produce sufficiently negative results as to remain on
balance unwise.

Harms to Children
Most prominent among such arguments is that voting would harm children
themselves. Locke claims that, since rights exist for the sake of individuals’ “self-
preservation,” “the necessities of [a child’s] life, the health of his body, and the
information of his mind would require him to be directed by the will of others and
not his own” (1823, 130). More recently, Scarre argues against minors voting
because “most adults, because they have lived a long time, have this ability [to
plan systematic policies of action], but children, because their mental powers and
experience are inadequate, do not” (1980, 123). Children might vote for
representatives who promise, for example, to shorten the school day, lower the
driving age, or remove parental controls from mass media. Children’s relative lack
of experience in the world could cause them to use their vote against their own best

There are at least three difficulties with this argument. First, the possibility or
likelihood of self-harm does not usually cancel the right to vote in the case of
adults. Indeed, it can be argued that adults routinely vote against their own self-
interest, such as when the poor support policies that only benefit the wealthy
(Frank 2004). Contra Locke, today we normally consider the right to vote as
belonging to citizens regardless of how badly they might use it. Since nobody can
rightly claim a monopoly on what is best for groups in society, it is wiser to allow
the greatest possible diversity of voices to influence public debate. In the political
sphere, the right to make one’s voice heard is generally considered more
fundamental than the right to be protected against self-harm.

Second, preventing voting because of the likelihood of negative consequences to
oneself is elitist. Historical voting tests such as Jim Crow literacy and competence
laws have undermined the very foundations of democratic rule. As Franklin argues,
“that adults have an understanding of the interests of children which is superior to
that possessed by the children themselves is not sufficient to justify intervention in
their [political] affairs” (1986, 30-31). Part of the point of voting is to give voice to
those who might not otherwise be heard. In the case of children, voting would
serve to challenge longstanding assumptions held by dominant adults. Here again
we find an unjustified extension of private rights into public rights, in this case the
right of parents to raise their own children expanded into the right of every adult to
make political choices for all children. Democracies ought to avoid presuming what
is best for entire populations without first hearing from those populations
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Finally, and most importantly, far from doing them harm, suffrage would most
likely bring children and youth great benefits. For one thing, minors’ voting would
enlighten political decision-makers about minors’ actual lives and experiences.
Given the complexity of what is in children’s best interests—and of interpreting
childhoods in all their cultural, gender, ethnic, class, and other diversities—child
voting would enable lawmakers to make significantly better informed decisions.
Even more importantly, representatives would finally be forced to provide young
people full and equal consideration. Lawmakers would feel more pressure to invest
in schools, strengthen health insurance, support families, improve recreation
spaces, reduce child exploitation, and in general treat minors with dignity and

Harms to Children’s Rights
A similar argument is that, even were voting rights themselves beneficial to
children, they could start a slippery slope of children gaining further rights that are
not. Children might start to press, for example, for rights to make their own major
medical decisions, not attend school, work full time, or divorce their parents. Or,
more indirectly, children might face an erosion of existing special rights such as to
juvenile courts and sentencing, public education, health care provision, and
protections from marriage, employment, and serving in the military. Indeed, some
already see problems in areas such as minors in the United States being
increasingly tried for crimes as adults (though, of course, this in a context lacking
children’s vote). As Guggenheim summarizes this objection, the more children gain
political rights, the less societies will “treat children like children” (2005, 266).
Instead of focusing on children’s rights, “a caring society would insist on
considering [children’s] needs and interests” (ibid.).

One difficulty with this argument is that it tends to misunderstand voting’s purpose.
Except in the case of direct referenda, voting does not directly make social policy
but indirectly elects representatives to act as they see best for the whole
community. Representatives are supposed to represent children already. The
difference added by minors voting is that a third of representatives’ constituents
would now gain the right to enforce accountability. No voting group enjoys total
liberty unchecked by other voting groups and established legal precedent. Children
would only gain the right to full-time employment, for example, were such a right
supported by the majority of a voting population and not contrary to other
established rights such as to non-exploitation and full-time education.

More importantly, the slippery slope objection fails to take into account the
difference between voting rights and other kinds of rights. Children, of course,
already enjoy a vast array of rights besides political rights: other so-called
“participation” rights such as to freedom of thought, religion, and culture; an even
wider range of “protection” rights such as against discrimination, sexual abuse, and
labor exploitation; and “provision” rights such as to public education, health care,
and parental support. Some rights legitimately belong to specific groups based on
their distinct situations, such as women’s rights to maternity leave, the poor’s
rights to welfare, ethnic minorities’ rights to affirmative action, disabled persons’
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rights to accessibility, and the elderly’s rights to social security. Children likewise
deserve distinct rights such as to a free education, a separate juvenile justice
system, non-marriage, and parental protection. But voting is the kind of right that
belongs to citizens in common, like other universal rights such as to freedom of
expression, non-exploitation, and non-violence. Voting is a common right because it
elects representatives whose actions affect the entire community. Were young
people to gain the right to vote, they would neither lose their own specific areas of
rights nor gain special powers to make policies just for themselves. Rather, they
would simply join with adults in the shared pursuit of a more just society for all.

Harm to Adults
Another harm-related argument is that suffrage would hand children and youth
powers to harm adults. Children’s political influence could, for example, undermine
the rights of parents, roll back gains by women, or reduce social support for the
elderly. As Cowley and Denver note, children might make poor voting choices
because they “have little experience of life beyond family and school, and no
memory of governments or public affairs going back further than two or three years
at most” (2004, 61). The major concern here is the rights of parents. If children
could vote, parents might find themselves less able to demand success in school,
pass on their faith, set bedtimes, make medical decisions, and so on. Guggenheim
argues that “attempting to consider the rights and needs of (very young) children
without simultaneously taking into account the rights and needs of their parents is
akin to attempting to isolate someone’s arm from the rest of their body” (2005, 13-
14). Children’s suffrage could, in effect, replace much of parental authority with
that of the state, as children increasingly gain the ability to use the ballot to
circumvent parental control.

One flaw in this argument, however, is that it fails to recognize that children will
always exercise less political power over adults than adults exercise over children.
For one thing, children and youth are almost everywhere a minority of the
population. Even more importantly, children already hold less power in other areas
of life supporting politics, such as economics, educational attainment, and cultural
capital. In addition, children will generally possess less political clout than adults
simply by virtue of having spent fewer years of their lives exercising political rights.
Young people’s suffrage would not overturn adult power so much as provide the
least naturally powerful age group greater political balance.

Furthermore, it is not necessarily problematic that parents’, teachers’, and other
adults’ authority over children should be checked by public policies. Before the
1970s, adults were rarely prosecuted for children’s physical or sexual abuse.
Minors’ voting is likely to challenge the many ways that parents, other adults, and
communities harm children in ways to which children are better attuned. Just as
women voting arguably improved gender relations, so also would children voting
improve age relations. It would force parents and other adults to relate to children
more respectfully and less exploitatively. Parents could find themselves, for
example, required to be involved in schools, obliged to save for college, less
protected in cases of sexual exploitation, or held to firmer responsibilities after
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Finally, just as children voting would likely improve the lives of children, it would
also likely improve the lives of adults. Democratic deliberation aims on the whole to
help the people of a country air their concerns and differences and thereby expand
justice. Children’s suffrage would help parents, teachers, doctors, ministers, NGO
leaders, and policy makers to better understand and confront the diversity of
children’s issues and experiences. It would enable them to do better jobs, for
example, fighting discrimination in schools, responding to disabilities, and
developing effective medical practices. Adults themselves would gain greater
understanding of the interdependent social systems of which they are a part. As
just one small example, the children’s parliament in Barra Mansa, Brazil
successfully pressed for brighter lighting on unsafe streets, which made the streets
safer for adults too (Cabannes 2006, 203). The wager of democracy is that a
greater diversity of voices will on the whole produce a more fully just society for all.
And, if nothing else, since children grow up to become adults, children’s improved
well-being pays off in better lives for adults of the future.

Harms to Culture
Finally, a different kind of argument can be made against children’s suffrage: that it
would impose a European colonialist culture of individualism on more collectively-
oriented cultures of the global South. I have not seen this argument made about
voting specifically, but it is frequently cited against the advance of children’s rights
generally. Some argue, for example, that “granting children the amount of
participation in decision making granted in the Convention [on the Rights of the
Child] may be more problematic in cultures where freedom of expression and self-
assertion are less valued than obedience and duty fulfillment and where adult-child
interactions are traditionally quite hierarchical” (Murphy-Berman, Levesque, and
Berman 1996, 1259). Others point out the ways in which the pursuit of children’s
rights by many Western-based NGOs “draws children out of their own contexts of
family and community, and re-locates them within the rather different context of
the developmental organization” (White 2007, 510). For others, children’s political
rights could threaten deep cultural traditions of gender differentiation (Jacquemin

One difficulty with this argument is that there is not in reality a single nation on
Earth that does not structure its laws around some notion of “rights.” A right, in its
simplest terms, is what a society guarantees to its inhabitants. Indeed, the CRC is
the most universally ratified treaty in all of human history, having gone into effect
in all but three countries in the world (the largest exception being the Northern
country of the United States). The CRC, furthermore, despite not including suffrage,
does grant children several similar political rights such as “the right to express
[their] views freely in all matters affecting the child” (Article 12), “the right to
freedom of expression” (Article 13), “the right of the child to freedom of thought,
conscience, and religion” (Article 14), and “the rights of the child to freedom of
association and to freedom of peaceful assembly” (Article 15). If children’s political
rights are tools of colonial hegemony, then it is a hegemony in which every
government on the planet is complicit.

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Second, history shows that children’s voting rights are if anything stronger in non-
Western cultures than in Western ones. The first children’s parliament was created
in Rajasthan, India, and has had many significant successes, and many of the more
powerful children’s parliaments today are in less-developed countries such as
Bolivia, Brazil, and Nigeria (John 2003). Tokenism is more often found in the
children’s parliaments of Europe, which tend to be more educational in nature. The
reason for this greater political traction outside the West is that children here are
often already more fully integrated into public life through work, labor
organizations, and social roles. If anything, it is the highly privatized childhoods of
Europe and North America that are more difficult to square with children’s suffrage.

Finally, it is inconsistent to cite colonial oppression as a reason to perpetuate the
oppression of children. Post-colonialism has many different possible meanings, but
it rarely involves doing away with the right to democratic self-governance (Said
1978; Spivak 2010). If, as Spivak (2010) argues, it is necessary to “let the
subaltern speak,” then who has been more profoundly silenced by global cultural
hegemony than the young? Minors’ suffrage and anti-imperialism share the same
goal of empowering the poor and the marginalized. Every democracy in the world
(besides Saudi Arabia) grants the right to vote to women (Wall 2014). Oppression
typically rests on creating binary oppositions—between genders, classes,
ethnicities, and so on—and needs to be challenged also on binary oppositions of
age. Imagine if a child factory worker making clothing in Bangladesh for Forever 21
were to gain the power to vote.

Conclusion: A Proxy-Claim Vote
I have argued that the right to vote should be extended as broadly as possible and
that the major arguments against extending it to minors are unpersuasive. The
deficiencies lie less on the side of children and youth than on the side of ingrained
historical assumptions about them. None but the very youngest of children can
justly be denied suffrage on the basis of competence, knowledge, or independence.
No young person possessing suffrage would cause more harm than good to
themselves, adults, or societies. If democracy is the experiment of including “the
people” in governance, then it is undemocratic to exclude the third of the people
who happen to be under 18 years of age without significantly more compelling
reasons for doing so.

Since much of the devil is in the details, I would like briefly to flesh out, in
conclusion, my proposal of a proxy-claim vote in which all citizens are granted a
right to vote at birth that is exercised by a parent or guardian proxy until such a
time as it is claimed by the child by registering to vote. While a proxy vote may
seem undemocratic through the eyes of the modernist ideal of the autonomous
citizen, and while a claim for the vote in childhood challenges modernity’s adult-
only premises, my proposal is the best way to realize the postmodern democratic
ideal of maximum inclusion of the people’s lived experiences of difference.

There have been three concrete proposals for how to extend suffrage to children.
What has been called a “liberationist” proposal is to make suffrage simply universal,
on the assumption that very few children who do not understand what goes into
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voting would actually do so anyway (Holt 1975). As Franklin puts it, “the potential
danger of a few children voting who perhaps should not is far outweighed by the
actual injustice involved when large numbers of children who are interested and
informed about politics and wish to vote are excluded from so doing” (1986, 45).
Another possibility is to establish what Schrag calls a voting “fitness test” in which,
somewhat similarly to a driving test, anyone below the age of 18 would have to
demonstrate a basic voting capacity, which in Schrag’s view would involve the
proven ability to differentiate between major political ideologies (1975, 452).
Finally, a proxy proposal was introduced into the German parliament in 2008
(though has yet to be voted upon) by a coalition of liberal and conservative parties
and youth activists and advocates. This legislation would grant suffrage to all
citizens at birth, to be exercised by a parent or guardian until they believe the child
is ready to use it (CRIN 2008; de Quetteville 2008; Goethe Institute 2010). The
idea here is that many children and youth are competent to vote, and their parents
stand in the best position to determine when this competence is reached.

My own proxy-claim proposal is for a combination of the German and liberationist
models. The problem with purely universal suffrage, as already noted, is that
younger children without any capacity to vote at all would become the only major
group without the vote and therefore even more profoundly marginalized than they
already are. The problem, in contrast, with the second idea of a fitness test is that
it is unclear how the required competencies could justly be defined and who could
define them without political manipulation. The German proposal has the virtue of
combining maximum children’s suffrage with direct representation for those not yet
able to exercise it for themselves. However, it places control over who gets to vote
in the hands of adults rather than children themselves, providing adults the unjust
ability to deny suffrage to children who desire it.

The best way to ensure maximum democratic inclusion is to combine a proxy vote
with the right to claim it for oneself as soon one chooses to do so. The act of
registering to vote is the best indicator of minimum capacity to vote, since it
requires the same abilities as voting itself: competence to make political choices,
knowledge of political alternatives, and independence to act for oneself. Babies and
toddlers are unlikely to register, but older children and youth may wish to do so at
different ages depending on their circumstances, experience, and interest. While it
is possible that some children (and some adults) would choose to vote for frivolous
reasons—say, to feel grown up or part of the crowd—on the whole it would be
democratically unjust to bar access to those wishing to vote for serious reasons just
because some do not. The purpose of the right to vote would then be as fully as
practicably realized: to hold elected representatives accountable to the widest
possible diversity of the people.

Such a proposal raises many questions that require further discussion. Which
parent would exercise the proxy vote if parents disagreed or were divorced? What
about when children are legal citizens but their parents are not? Should schools be
involved in registration or voting so as to make children’s suffrage more widely
available, or should they be excluded to avoid undue political influence? Should
children also be able to run for office, and if so how would that be balanced with the
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right not to work and to full-time education? While these and other questions
cannot be answered here, I would simply note that, however they might be
resolved, in all cases the result would be an improvement on the current situation
in which all citizens under the age of 18 are disenfranchised entirely. It would be an
improvement, in other words, in democracy’s democratization.

John Wall is Professor of Philosophy, Religion, and Childhood Studies at Rutgers
University, Camden. He is author of Ethics in Light of Childhood (Georgetown 2010)
and Moral Creativity (Oxford 2005), as well as co-editor of Children and Armed
Conflict (Palgrave 2011), Marriage, Health, and the Professions (Eerdmans 2002),
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