Let the Young Vote

Conor Friedersdorf has some smart comments about the 10th grader who challenged Michele Bachmann to a competition over knowledge of the Constitution. I recommend it.

My reaction? If I had a magic wand, I’d give this 10th grader and her peers the right to vote — and the right to really challenge Bachmann by running against her in the next election.

First of all, as I’ve said before, I just don’t see what is gained from making Americans ages 18-35 only partial citizens by restricting their ability to run for office. Yes, most 20 year olds shouldn’t be Members of the House of Representatives, but so what? Most 50 year olds shouldn’t, either! I see no reason why the electorate is supposedly able to judge the latter but not the former. Practices vary around the world, and this is one where I think the framers of the Constitution just got it wrong.

And, then, voting age. Ezra Klein had a fun little item yesterday about weighted votes in America, and he’s upset that folks in Wyoming are overrepresented in the Senate, and that’s fair enough. But you know who is really underrepresented? Those under 18 years of age. The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that teenagers are perfectly capable of voting — and the more I think about it, the more I’m open to the argument for vote-from-birth.

Granted, the question becomes the meaning of voting and elections. Do we believe in elections because we believe that collective decision making yields the best decisions? Do we believe in elections because we believe that citizens should have an opportunity for meaningful political action? Or do we believe in elections because we believe that all interests should be equally represented? To the extent that the latter is the “real” reason for elections, then I think there’s a strong argument against excluding even infants from the franchise (obviously, actually carried out by their parents, with families free to choose at what point the child was old enough to decide for herself).

I’d put it this way: if vote-from-birth was the norm and someone proposed eliminating it, I’m confident we would all think that was a terrible injustice. I’m not sure I’m for vote-from-birth, but I’ve been floating the idea here for a while now and haven’t found the arguments against it very convincing at all. As far as teenage voting, well, I’ve made this argument before — if high school and even middle school kids are allowed to electioneer, and they are and they do, then I can’t imagine why they are not allowed to vote.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.