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Childism and the Vote

John Wall

Most people, including academic experts, consider the question of which groups deserve the right to vote to have been largely resolved. Indeed, men and women being enfranchised has for some time been considered the benchmark of “universal” suffrage. The exclusion of the third of humanity who are under 18 years of age is rarely thought an issue.

At the same time, actual children and youth are contesting this assumption. And their disenfranchisement is increasingly being recognized in childhood studies as problematic – not only for children but also for adults and societies.

Though little known, there are child-led groups like We Want the Vote, Foundation for the Rights of Future Generations, and National Youth Rights Association who have actively campaigned for decades for voting for all regardless of age. They are joined by adult-led groups such as Amnesty International UK, Children’s Voice Association, Freechild Institute, Represent MA 2020, and others. Many of these groups currently collaborate through a global organization that I helped to found in 2019 called Children’s Voting Colloquium, which has a listserv of close to a hundred activists and scholars and whose mission is to abolish a minimum voting age across the world.

These movements grow in part out of children’s increasingly visible political activism. Young people are fighting for climate justice, gun rights, Black Lives Matter, migration justice, queer and transgender equality, and much else. They lead labor movements for working rights, form children’s parliaments in over 30 countries, and are active in innumerable child and youth councils. They are empowered citizens across the world.

My own argument for children’s universal voting is grounded in childism. That is, children’s suffrage would systematically improve democratic societies overall. Just as for women, minorities, and the poor in the past, suffrage is never about extending to new groups the same ideas about democracy that previously held sway. Rather, as now needs to be the case in response to the youngest members of societies, gaining suffrage means transforming democratic norms at their core. This is how previously unimaginable possibilities become real.

Children’s voting would improve democracies in various ways. It would include in policy decision-making the perspectives of the whole demos or people instead of just a part. It would ensure that representatives are held directly accountable to children’s and not just adults’ interests. And it would provide societies a sharper and fuller picture of its members' grassroots experiences, adding a third again more pixels to the screen of democratic debate. In short, democracies would make better decisions about the pressing issues they face.

An obvious example is the climate emergency, which is significantly better addressed when responding to the voices of children, who face its direst short- and long-term impacts. Education policy flies half blind without input from those actually being educated. Poverty law is ineffective to the extent that it is not crafted with pressure from children as the poorest segment of most societies. Economic policy is more likely to embrace long- rather than just short-term considerations. Health legislation would be pressured to respond to those for whom getting it right has the profoundest effects. Likewise for racial and gender non-discrimination, criminal justice, disability policy, and indeed every issue in political life.

A childist perspective insists on deconstructing the adultism that underlies children’s marginalization in the first place. It is commonly assumed, for example, that children are not yet politically competent enough to vote, without examining what voting competence should really mean or whether adults are held to the same standard. Many believe that children would be manipulated by adults, without thinking about how influence works in voting at all ages and how to distinguish due from undue kinds. And just as for the poor, minorities, and women in the past, children are normatively constructed as outside the political sphere, despite their being impacted by political decisions on the whole more profoundly than adults.

What childism contributes to the conversation about children’s voting is the ability to imagine transformative possibilities. It is not just about including children as equal political agents, participants, and citizens, true that this may be. It is also and more systemically about redefining political equality itself. Only in this more radical way can democracy transcend its final major exclusion and embody its own ideal of universal suffrage.

For those interested, I develop these arguments in my forthcoming book, Give Children the Vote: On Democratizing Democracy (Bloomsbury, November 2021).

John Wall is Professor of Philosophy and Religion, with a joint appointment in Childhood Studies, at Rutgers University Camden; Director of the Childism Institute; and co-founder of the Children’s Voting Colloquium. He is the author of Give Children the Vote: On Democratizing Democracy (Bloomsbury 2021); Children’s Rights: Today’s Global Challenge (Rowman & Littlefield 2016); Ethics in Light of Childhood (Georgetown 2010); and Moral Creativity (Oxford 2005). And he is co-editor of Handbook of Theories in Childhood Studies (Bloomsbury, forthcoming); Exploring Children’s Suffrage (Palgrave Macmillan forthcoming); Children and Armed Conflict (Palgrave Macmillan 2011); Marriage, Health, and the Professions (Eerdmans 2002); and Paul Ricoeur and Contemporary Moral Thought (Routledge 2002 and 2016).

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