RIGHT TO VOTE: Children's rights means citizens' rights

Summary: This article explains the arguments for giving children the right to vote. This article was published as part of the CRIN Review 23 on children's evolving capacities. The author is Bob Franklin from Cardiff University's School of Journalism, Media & Cultural Studies.


The British philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote: “no political theory is adequate unless it is applicable to children as well as to men and women.” But most people seem to accept children's exclusion from voting as an article of ill-considered faith, a sort of self-evident common sense that requires little justification.

In democratic societies the presumption must always be against exclusion and the burden of proof must rest with those who propose to disenfranchise. Children’s exclusion from the right to vote denies them not merely citizen rights but the right to be a citizen.

The 'case' for excluding children and young people rests on two related arguments:

  • Children are irrational and incapable of making reasoned and informed decisions, so it makes little sense to give them rights they are incapable of exercising.   
  • Children lack the wisdom born of experience, so they are likely to make bad decisions and mistakes.  Society is simply protecting them from their own incompetence; in brief, a classic statement of paternalism. 

A rebuttal of the case against

    1. Children have rational thoughts and make informed choices. They often display very sophisticated decision-making abilities, for example when dealing with a bully at school or an abusive parent. Some claim young people are ignorant of political affairs, but if this is true, it is a truth that extends to many adults. Democracy requires that everyone should have a voice in making the decisions that govern their lives. 
    2. Children should not be prevented from making decisions simply because they might make the wrong ones. It is important not to confuse the right to do something with doing the right thing. Some argue children would cast their vote frivolously, but many adults do the same or choose not to vote at all. 
    3. Mistakes are learning experiences and should not be viewed as wholly negative. Children, like adults, grow through a process of trial and error. Decisions made by adults are far from infallible as evidenced by wars, nuclear weapons, global warming and many more bad judgments that have led to pain and suffering. To deny children the right to make mistakes is hypocritical. If the argument is really about competence and not age, then it is not children who should be excluded but the incompetent.
    4. Setting age limits on the right to vote is relativistic and arbitrary. Limits vary from country-to-country when it comes to criminal responsibility, sexual maturity and political rights. The negative definition of children as “non-adults” is simplistic. The ages from  to 18 encompass an enormous range of skills, competencies, needs and rights. A 16-year-old is likely to have more in common with a 19-year-old than a three-year-old but, according to conventional accounts, the 16 and three-year-old are equally “children”. There is no better example than that of a 17-year-old who dies in a war before even having the right to vote.  
    5. The exclusion of children from decision-making is unfair because they can do nothing to change the conditions that exclude them. If incompetence was the issue, the stupid could grow wise, but children can not prematurely grow old. This argument confuses particular children with children as a group.
    6. The argument for the exclusion of children from decision-making is little more than ill thought through prejudice dressed up as “common sense'”. 

    The case in favour of giving children the right to vote

    Are children really capable of voting?  If they are, is it desirable that they do so? John Holt, an American pioneer in youth rights, answered both questions with a resounding “yes”.

    Holt argued that everyone should have the right to vote when their interest, knowledge and involvement in politics are sufficiently developed to motivate them to do so. This does not mean that all children would vote.

    Holt believed that few six-year-olds would exercise their vote, but many ten-year-olds would since “they seem to understand at least as much about the world and its problems as I or most of my friends did when we left college.”  

    Evidence from two key studies (Greenstein 1974; Dawson, Prewitt, Dawson 1977) suggests that Holt had a good point:

    1. People acquire the ability to discuss, assess and make decisions about politics much earlier than popular opinion imagines.  
    2. The pace of political learning reflects, at least in part, the expectations of performance embraced in that public opinion. If adults acknowledged young people's abilities to discuss political issues, those capacities might be enhanced.

    Most children are enthusiastic about the possibilities of voting. Consider the following quote from Olive Stevens' book Children Talking Politics:

    “We've got to vote.  I mean, us children.  We're not allowed to vote until we're eighteen, the government said that.  But I think we should have more say - in the Common Market and things.  We might make the wrong suggestions, but at least we've tried to be more mature in our ways.”

    Holt's formula is attractive because it would allow those young people who are interested in politics to help form decisions. This “participation according to interest” or “creeping franchise” mirrors adult electoral behaviour.

    Objections to be overcome 

    1. Despite the arguments in favour of allowing children to vote, there remain many obstacles:It might be argued that children are more likely to vote on the basis of the personality of the party leader than on the policies of the parties, but adults often do the same. And why not? The different personalities of the party leaders are relevant considerations when assessing a party's potential for achieving its manifesto commitments. Consider the electoral appeal of Barack Obama compared to John McCain reflecting the former's charismatic personality. 
    2. It is sometimes suggested that those who support a youth franchise are imposing adult lifestyles and patterns of behaviour upon children and young people precociously.  But they do not want to force children to do anything.  On the contrary, they wish to create opportunities for young people to participate where previously they have been inappropriately excluded.  It is adult opponents of child suffrage who currently force children to comply with their perceptions of what it is to be “child-like”; namely innocent, irrational, incompetent, powerless and excluded.  
    3. Opponents similarly suggest that some see the right to vote as a panacea for all the difficulties which children and young people confront, but they have overestimated its significance. Of course, the right to vote is not a panacea.  Individuals must use their vote to complement their participation in pressure groups and a host of other community organisations if they are to maximise their influence on democratic policymaking.


    4. Finally there is, allegedly, the danger that parents might seek to influence their children's electoral choices.  This objection can be met in a number of ways:
    • While it is true that research shows that the electoral preferences of parents form a powerful influence on children's voting patterns, these influences persist whether we are ten, twenty, fifty or eighty years of age.  To exclude only young people because of parental influence is one-sided and unjust. 
    • If children had the right to vote and enjoyed a greater responsibility for their affairs, they would be less susceptible to parental influence.  
    • A secret ballot would assist children's autonomy. 


    The denial of political rights to children offends fundamental democratic principles. The division between voters and non-voters based upon age is incoherent. 

    Democracy should encourage as many people as possible to become informed about and actively engaged in the affairs of their society. Everyone should be allowed to vote or join a political party when their interest, knowledge and involvement motivates them to do so.

    Of course not all children would vote and very young children with only a marginal interest in politics would probably abstain. The sheer scale of the current exclusion of many millions of young people is wholly unacceptable.

    Giving the vote to children would place the responsibility for protecting children's rights where it properly belongs - not in the hands of well-meaning but potentially paternalistic adults, but with children themselves.

    Political equality would require adults to take young people more seriously and abandon patronising attitudes that systematically underestimate their abilities. 

    If these are some of the possible implications of the extension of franchise to young people, bring it on!


    Countries where under 18s can vote

    Under 16:
    Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Croatia if employed, 18 otherwise, Cuba, Ecuador, Guernsey, Isle of Man, Jersey, Nicaragua, Philippines for municipal elections and married persons, Serbia and Montenegro if employed, 18 otherwise, Slovenia if employed, 18 otherwise (for local elections: Germany, Switzerland). 

    Under 17:
    East Timor, Indonesia universal and married persons regardless of age, North Korea, Sudan, Seychelles, (for local elections: Israel) (for some primaries: United States). 

      Owner: Bob Franklinpdf: http://www.crin.org/resources/infoDetail.asp?ID=21049


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