Professor of Philosophy, Religion, and Childhood Studies, Rutgers University
Director of the Childism Institute
Author of the forthcoming Give Children the Vote: On Democratizing Democracy (Bloomsbury, November 2021).
I’d like to lay out why I think the solution for children’s voting is neither the status quo nor extending the status quo to children. The solution, in my view, is to theorize and practice voting differently: as an equally child-inclusive proxy-claim right to vote. Here’s why.
The history of democratic suffrage is usually assumed to consist in one idea and practice of voting being extended to wider and wider groups over time. But such a view serves the interests of those already able to vote. In reality, democratic voting began with aristocrats gaining the right to exercise power over parliaments. It then extended to the approximately 6% of populations who were landowning white men (the situation after the US Constitution and the French Revolution). All white men only gained suffrage for the first time in 1848 in France. Then came minority men. Then women starting a little over a century ago. Then younger adults 18-21.
With each transition, voting underwent fundamental shifts in meaning. It was extended to landowners because voting came to mean, not just having a title, but having a stake in the wider geographical commonwealth. To poorer men because it came to mean representing the public interests of private households. To minority men as a need for political non-discrimination. To women as a right that should belong, not just to heads of households, but to all competent individuals. To 18-year-olds as a right for all with a stake in political affairs. Not only were there radical shifts in voting as a concept, but these shifts brought with them also changes in how voting was actually carried out.
Just as the movement for women’s suffrage rested on what is now called first-wave feminism, so also must children’s voting arise out of a fundamental shift in perspective that I would call “childism.” Childism refers to the effort to empower children by transforming social norms and structures. (Visit the Childism Institute here). The idea – as in similar isms such as feminism, antiracism, decolonialism, and posthumanism – is that childism deconstructs adultist/patriarchal assumptions arising from history and reconstructs social thinking and practice in the present in response to the diverse lived experiences of children.
The common understanding of voting is that left over from the last great suffrage movement for women. That is, voting should be permitted, regardless of gender, for all competent and independent adults. It is defined precisely by no longer being a child, which women are just as much as men. This is why, despite the great gain of women’s suffrage, it is so difficult for contemporary societies to imagine even the idea of voting rights for children.
But the often given alternative to this common view is merely to state that children, or some children, are just as competent to vote as adults. The votes at 16 movement, for example, typically argues that 16-year-olds are just as capable of voting as adults and hold similar social responsibilities like paying taxes. Many in my field of childhood studies take this view further and argue that children of any age are fully competent social actors and so deserve equal voting rights as well. There is a certain elegance to this solution, as it simply breaks down the final voting barrier of age. But the problem is that it retains the underlying adultist assumption that voting is for persons with sufficient individual competence.
Childism suggests that a different approach is needed, one that radically rethinks what voting is and how it is practiced, so that voting is as equally responsive to the lived experiences of children as it currently is to that of adults. We need to recognize that on the current model of voting, infants and younger children would find themselves even more profoundly marginalized. They would be very unlikely to vote and would end up with even less relative power to others than at present. Instead, I propose, voting needs to recognize that the demos or people are not independent but inter-dependent, that is, at one and the same time independently different and dependently reliant on others.
Such a foundation calls for a different kind of voting practice, one of “proxy-claim” voting. Everyone in a democracy should have a “proxy” vote from birth to death that is exercised by their closest guardian. A proxy vote is a dependent vote in which the people are empowered by others and democratic structures around them. It would be exercised on behalf of anyone who could not exercise voting on behalf of themselves, including infants and young children as well as the around 10% of adults who are severely cognitively impaired or suffering from dementia, as well as those adults already having proxy votes in many countries due to hospitalization, travel abroad, and the like. In most democracies, a roughly equal number of children and adults would likely benefit from this kind of proxy voting.
At the same time, everyone in a democracy should have a “claim” vote, a right to claim their vote to exercise at any time on behalf of themselves. A claim vote is an independent right to vote that anyone of any age should be able to exercise whenever they so desire. Any child of any age, as well as any adult, should have the right to exercise their vote at any point they wish. A claim vote replaces a proxy vote, not at a preordained age or competency, but at the voter’s own choosing. The simple desire to vote is itself sufficient evidence of the capacity to vote on one’s own behalf. A claim right to vote would maximize democracies’ abilities to respond to the people’s full diversity of lived experiences.
Without a new imagination of voting rights along proxy-claim or similar lines, democracies will not fully or equally represent children. They will not gain the benefits of children’s perspectives or hold themselves accountable to children’s lives. We need to think more radically about voting – just as the poor, minorities, and women had to do in the past – if democracies are to eliminate their current historically-based biases of age and so become more democratic.