Votes at 16 And Younger

Mar 12, 2012

image0One thing that's not being appreciated enough (because it's only exciting to a certain kind of wonk) is how the debates about a Scottish Independence referendum are systematically going through every disputed concept in the idea of elections. When is the vote? About what? How will they vote? Especially disputed is the question of who should vote: All affected interests? By geography? By blood? And now there's also the question of if people younger than 18 should be given a say in their national future. If this goes anywhere, it would be the first UK referendum which expands rather than contracts the electorate (and would require the development of a separate voting register for this election which might be interesting).

The one thing still off-limit is breaking the idea that all voters should count equally - a rule I'll argue further down that breaking would actually provide quite a neat solution to the problem of lowering the voting age - but first let's go into the normal arguments for a bit. Here we have Angela Constance making the case for letting 16 -and 17-year-olds vote:

After all, if a 16 year old in Scotland can join the army, get married and pay taxes – surely he or she should be able to have a say in this country’s future? That is why in the consultation Your Scotland, Your Referendum, we are seeking views on extending the right to vote in this referendum to 16 and 17 year olds who are eligible to be included on the electoral register.

This is the usual trio brought up to demonstrate the unfairness of the current voting age. The object here is to show that we are in some way being inconsistent in handling the maturity of 16 year olds without relying on the slippery slope of 'maturity'. In Scotland the marriage thing holds (In England and Wales there's a parental consent requirement below 18) but the army item has gotten more tenuous as although 16 year olds can join the army they're not actually allowed to deploy anywhere till they're 18.

The tax argument is worth going into. The idea that there's a connection between taxation and representation is an old one but not necessarily a particularly good one to demonstrate inconsistency - being consistent on it would require us to do far more than allow 16-year-olds to vote. For a start, we actually let children pay taxes far earlier than 16, any time a child saves up and buys anything with VAT they're tax-payers. True at 16 someone can work full time and pay income tax, but there's no real reason to connect this kind of tax to the franchise and no other. From the other end we don't take away the right to vote from adult unemployed people or those in full-time education who similarly have the potential to be tax-payers but aren't. To be consistent, if it's the ability to pay tax that's important we must enfranchise anyone who can earn and spend anything, or if we are treating income tax as a special case then we need to disenfranchise anyone who is not paying income tax (in which case the Lib Dem policy of raising the personal threshold wouldn't be a way of relieving the tax burden on the poorest but a sneaky way of disenfranchising them).

What this argument is basically getting at is the idea that we have a norm for granting a set of rights at 16 and voting rights should be included in it. This is a helpful argument for advocates of lowering the voting age because it allows an appeal to precedent and doesn't rely directly on the nebulous idea of 'maturity' - a problematic idea because there's inevitably only a small difference between each age cohort making it hard to draw the process to a stop (if we let 18 year olds, why not 17? And if them why not 16? And if them, why not... and so on).

The trouble with this is that it's hard to see why this logic doesn't also apply to any other right gained at 18. The basic challenge of 'we grant right X at 16, how is it just that we grant right Y at 18?' applies to all of them. If children are considered mature enough to have opinions on keeping Trident, why shouldn't they be allowed to buy fireworks? Taken to its conclusion this is saying is that adulthood begins at 16, not that children should vote.

There's not necessarily anything wrong with this idea, a society based on this would be different but not unthinkable, but accepting this puts an end to the idea of graduated maturity. Andrew Rehfeld argues that the defining feature of childhood maturity isn't that it is or isn't present but that it is 'in development' and I think this chimes with how many people instinctively feel about the subject. Many 16 year olds are on average probably mature enough to be citizens, but 18 year olds are on average more so and 14-year-olds on average less so - hence a structure that grants legal rights at intervals and removes qualifications on rights as a person ages seems to fit nicely into this. So given this, how should voting rights be handled? Highest bundle? Lowest? Rehfeld leans on the idea of California state senator John Vasconcellos, who argued that rather than debate at which point we turn on voting rights, we should do it gradually and give fractional votes to citizens under the age of 18.

Rehfeld actually goes far further than most child voting supporters, not simply arguing that 16-year-olds should have half a vote until they turn 18, but that we should go far lower and each year from 12 a person should gain 1/7 of a vote until they have their full vote at 18 (Vasconcellos's fractions were different but same basic idea). The basic idea of gradualism I think is a good one because it sidesteps the problem of a 'race to the bottom' above as this approach reflects differences in maturity rather than similarities. Practically the vote count would be different but not unmanageable and could still be done with a hand count - at it's most basic you could use separate registers for each birth year, colour-code the voting slips and then count these votes separate from the main piles. Counting the different cohorts in series would add little difficulty over simply increasing the number of voters.

Now that some people should have greater voting power than others is a commonly-had and commonly-rejected idea. Ultimately that each person has one vote is a compromise, as any other scheme arguing that certain citizens are wiser and so should have greater voting powers would not be generally accepted and so would undermine rather than enrich the democratic process. I think children are a special case in this sense as the fractional vote represents a process rather than permanent division. It's not an argument that a certain race or gender's votes are worth less, or that any particular qualification should give more voting power - simply that children start off immature and progress towards maturity and they should have a voting power that reflects this reality. It allows for what I think is a reasonably common sense view on the maturity of children to be expressed, while at the same time recognizing that children represent real interests (that are distinct from any other group) and should have a say in matters.

Even as a reduced voting block this would still introduce a sizeable number of people to the electorate so the result is far from a token vote, and as a result children would grow and be socialized into citizenship rather than having it thrust on them all at once. This is a more radical approach than votes at 16, but I think it ultimately accomplishes the same aims better and - rather than creating a new voting age with the same justifications waiting in the wings to lower it again - would create a future-proof framework for dealing with child voters. Best case, this gives us a political system more tuned to the needs and concerns of the young (and by proxy, future generations) and more children who enter adulthood as politically aware individuals. Worst case, we add a few more voters to the large number who already have no idea what they're doing.  On the basis of that highly slanted weighing up of the facts, it'd be silly not to think about it.

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