Children and the right to vote

Publication year: 2018

Beckman, Ludvig

In: Gheaus, Anca, Calder, Gideon, and De Wispelaere, Jurgen, eds. The Routledge Handbook of the Philosophy of Childhood and Children. Milton: Routledge.


The history of democracy is strongly associated with the gradual extension of suffrage and the inclusion of previously excluded groups and individuals in the realm of political rights. Democratization in this sense applies to young people and children, no less than to other groups, and is indicated by the decline of the mean voting-rights age every decade since the introduction of universal suffrage (Hamilton 2012; Cultice 1992).
Sixty years ago, no European democracy allowed 18-year-olds to vote; today, no European nation denies people aged 18 the vote. The tendency is to lower the age of voting further. Voting from the age of 16 is now allowed in several countries, including Austria, Argentina and Brazil. The general question raised by these developments concerns what the final destination should be: what is the appropriate voting-rights age in a democracy?

But this may not be the right question at all, as it assumes both that children can justifiably be excluded from political rights and that the reasons for excluding them are approximated by a uniformly applied voting age. Unless there are good reasons why both assumptions should be accepted, the question “what is the appropriate voting age?” does not appear. In this chapter, I focus on the reasons for these background beliefs.

One reason why children’s political rights matter is that children’s well-being matters. Public policy and law might of course be responsive to the perceived interests of Children even though they are disenfranchised. Yet, our society is arguably adult-based, viewing children primarily as future adults, disregarding the wants of children qua children (Cohen 2005; Campiglio 2009). Given that these tendencies are disruptive to the well-being of children, there is reason to consider ways to include children as actual participants in the
political process. The argument lends further support from the observation that the median voter in many developed countries is growing increasingly old. The political inclusion of children would mitigate against the rise of the “gerontocracy” (Berry 2012).

A second reason to care about the political inclusion of children is that it contributes instrumentally to the democratic process. It might do so in several ways, by, for example, bolstering civic virtue and knowledge or by increasing turnout rates in elections. It might also be argued that to exclude children would be undemocratic. Advocates of democracy easily slide from affirming the political rights of people or citizens, as general categories, to the exclusive recognition of adult’s political rights (Schrag 2004). Children represent a
“test case” for theories of democracy as it requires us to re-examine the boundaries of the democratic people.

In what follows, the first section deals with the meaning of political competence and the problem of regulating the age of voting. The subsequent sections examine the relationship between the value and meaning of democracy, on the one hand, and the inclusion of children, on the other.