Kids Vote

I have a new column up at TNR making the case for vote-from-birth, something I’ve discussed a few times before.

In the column, I basically make the argument that if the justification for democracy has to do with aggregating interests, then the case for vote-from-birth (by proxy at first, of course) is surprisingly strong.

Is the case for vote-from-birth really a winner?

I think it depends on what one consider the reason for democracy. The column depends on what is basically a liberal argument for democracy. However, consider a justification based more on republican thought: Political action is inherently important and democracy is the means of extending meaningful political participation to the largest number of people. That view is less concerned with democracy’s outcomes than with the process of democracy itself. Humans have the capacity for self-government, but they can only achieve it if inclusive, participatory institutions are established. Voting, in this case, can best be seen as a gateway activity: It’s not quite “action” the way that republican thinkers might conceptualize it, but it is an important first step in full, robust citizenship.

Under this conception of democracy, one could imagine a case for teenage or older children voting as a sort of training wheels approach to doing politics. After all, we allow and even encourage teenagers to start becoming involved in politics in other ways, and it makes little sense to be more restrictive with the franchise than we are with lobbying, electioneering, and other forms of political action. But voting, under this justification, would be inappropriate for children too young to do much but ape their parents, and it would make no sense at all for parents to exercise the vote on behalf of younger kids or infants. If the point of democracy is participation, then what matters is citizen action, and action, as Hannah Arendt asserted, can’t be represented.

In my view, the best of the framers (fine — I mean Madison) thought of democracy as a blend of liberal and republican thinking. and the system they invented basically incorporates both (and, yes, I know they didn’t call it “democracy,” but I don’t think that matters much for the argument at this point). So while I find the argument for teenage voting very strong, I can only say that I find the case for vote-from-birth very intriguing. I will repeat, however, one conclusion I came to in the column: if for whatever reason things had worked out slightly differently and vote-from-birth was the status quo, people would find it normal and natural, and no one would dare to suggest robbing infants of their 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.