Simon Keller lays out a case for why mature democracies like ours should extend the right to vote to children as young as 10

In a true democracy, voting is a right, not a privilege.

You do not need to earn the right to vote. It is not contingent on passing a test, like your right to drive. It is not a matter for substantive policy debate, like your right to buy alcohol in supermarkets. It is a foundational right of political membership.

No one can take away your right to vote on the grounds of your sex, religion, financial position or level of education – or your values or perceived intelligence.You can vote for bad reasons, if you want to. You can vote for the candidate you think funniest or prettiest. You can vote at random. You can vote unthinkingly for the party your family has always voted for. You do not need to justify your vote to anyone.

Our Government is presently undertaking a major review of electoral law, including voting age. There is a longstanding youth-led campaign to reduce the voting age to 16.

In considering possible changes to the voting age, the review should be built on two core reasons why voting, in a democracy, should be available to as many people as possible.

First, in a democracy, no one is inherently a slave or a ruler. Ideally, everyone who is subject to the law participates as an equal in the process that determines who makes the law. The government’s legitimacy comes from its answerability to the people it governs.

Second, in a democracy, a more representative government is a better government. A good government responds to everyone’s interests, not only the interests of – for example – men, property-owners, the educated, or the powerful.

The principle of inclusion in the voting process is not absolute. Most obviously, here in Aotearoa New Zealand many prisoners are denied the right to vote. But with that point noted, there remain strong democratic reasons to extend voting rights to people as young as 16, and indeed, even younger.

The crucial point is that, in a democracy, we should not assess anyone’s entitlement to vote by asking, “Have they earned it?” or “Will they vote in the ways we think best?”. Instead, we should ask whether they can meaningfully participate in the process of making the laws they must live by, and whether a government that represents them would be a better government.

In light of those considerations, I think that a mature democracy should extend the right to vote to children as young as 10.

By the time most children turn 10, they understand themselves as members of a political community. They know about laws and law enforcement. They know they are citizens, they know they are New Zealanders, and they know much about what that means.

They have values and concerns that reach beyond themselves. Children have a distinctive set of interests and a special investment in the future.

I have held discussions of political ideas with children in intermediate school, and also with undergraduates, middle-aged adults, and elderly continuing education students. Compared with their elders, the 10-year-olds are no less aware of themselves as people subject to laws, living in a shared political community.

They are no less able to articulate values and opinions, and no less able to defend and revise their opinions in discussions with others. Their concerns are different, but not in ways that can be put down to ignorance or confusion – no more so, anyway, than the political concerns of the rest of us.

Imagine that we lowered the voting age to 10. What might go wrong?

Would lots of children be uninterested in voting, and choose not to vote? Yes – just like lots of adults.

Would lots of children let someone else tell them how they should vote? Yes – just like lots of adults.

Would lots of children vote based on simplistic reasoning and misunderstandings of the issues? Yes – just like lots of adults.

Extending voting rights to children would recognise their participation in a political society, acknowledging their status as thinking, ethical agents who can make value judgments and can have a say over their own lives.

It would force politicians to communicate with children. We would have a government that represents a wider section of the population and pays attention to a broader range of its people’s interests.

You might think that children have not contributed enough to earn the right to vote. You might think that children will not vote in the way you think they should.

Fair enough – but that sets you on the road not only to scepticism about children voting, but scepticism about democracy. Think of how many adults you could disqualify from voting for exactly the same reasons.

The proposal to lower the voting age to 16, like many historical movements to extend the franchise, is grounded in sound democratic principles. Its only problem is that it does not go far enough.

Simon Keller is a professor of Philosophy at Victoria University of Wellington, and has authored books covering ethical and philosophical matters.

Leave a comment