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Give Children the Vote, Strengthen Democracy

In December 2018 David Runciman, Head of Politics at Cambridge University, made the radical proposal that children as young as six should be allowed to vote in elections to deal with the age bias in contemporary democracies. Allowing children to vote he said, would give a ‘jolt of energy’ to democracy. While the thought of six year olds voting sounds extreme and will no doubt be broadly dismissed, there is a strong democratic argument for lowering the eligible age from 18, which is the standard voting age in most countries and allowing children to vote.

In response to Professor Runciman’s suggestion The Guardian newspaper asked a group of children “aged 6-12 what [political] policies would get their vote.” Their intelligent, straightforward answers are inspiring and in accord with the views of many of us. Freed from ideology and party politics these children see the issues clearly and speak in an unencumbered way, direct from the heart.

Thomas Atkinson is 10 and lives in Belfast. “The other day I saw someone sitting on the pavement. He looked about 20. Why is that happening? He needs a job and a home – and there are so many jobs that need doing. Like, for example, the environmental problems. There is plastic on the beaches all around Bangor. We need people to clear that.” Petra Pekarik is 11 and lives in London. She is a Hungarian citizen – “it doesn’t make sense to me that Britain is putting up barriers. I feel the opposite should be happening, and we should be taking barriers away.” She says that in school they talk a lot about fairness, but in society “there are some people who are so special, and other people who don’t even have a home. Sometimes I see people living on the street and I think, why are they there? It’s important because we are all the same: these people aren’t different, they’re people. We are all people.” And Tom Ashworth, who is 9 and lives in Ambleside: “Climate change is the big issue politicians need to work on…. We can’t just let this happen and do nothing – it’s got to be stopped. We have to stop doing the things that cause climate change. It’s really important right now…. We need to stop wasting food and everything else we’re wasting.” The only six-year-old spoken to, Wilfie Tudor-Wills from London, said that, “there should be more houses in London. There are a lot of people in this city and they need places to live…. there should be less pollution, because it’s bad for your lungs.” And, given the chance to speak to the UK Prime Minister, Teresa May, he would “tell her to get more people to have electric cars because they’re better for the world. And also I’d like there to be more parks.”

The other children who were questioned gave answers that are just as insightful, but the views of these children, like all children their age go largely unheard. Children under 18 are commonly, and as these children’s comments demonstrate, mistakenly, thought to lack the understanding to participate in current affairs and as a result are denied the most basic democratic right, that of voting in an election; be it local or national. But at 18, everything changes; it is apparently the age when adulthood begins and with it full citizenship. Previously it was 21.

The arguments for excluding children from voting echo those trotted out in the past to ban other groups – women and people of color e.g. They are usually based on the idea that children are intellectually incapable of understanding the issues, are politically apathetic, and that, lacking a mind of their own, they will simply vote for the same candidate/party as their parents. This facile point was used to justify denying women the vote, only in that particular statement of prejudice, it was husbands not parents who it was said would determine the woman’s choice, because, like children, women cannot, or could not, think for themselves! Even if a child does vote in the same way as their parents, as indeed many over 18s do, it does not invalidate the ‘one person one vote’ system and is not a reason to deny him or her the opportunity to participate.

In countries or cities where 16 year-olds have been allowed to vote these justifications of exclusion have proven to be hollow. Multiple studies show the younger first-time voters are, the greater their participation: The Washington Post related the example of Takoma Park, the first city in America to lower the voting age to 16 (in 2013), where “16 – 17 year olds voted at twice the rate of the voting population.” In the 2016 Scottish Independence referendum 16 year olds were given the vote; they were actively involved in debates and 75% of those eligible to vote actually did so, 20% higher than 18 – 24 year olds. Support for early enfranchisement among the population at large also increased after the referendum – from around a third to 60%. The voting age in Scotland has since been lowered to 16 for all elections.

Whether 16 year olds, or anyone else for that matter, who are given the right to vote actually do so or not, however, should not be regarded as a reason to grant or withhold that right. In most general elections in the UK for example, an average of only 65% of those on the electoral register actually vote, and this is broadly the case in other western democracies.

Young people overwhelmingly support progressive liberal parties; they reject nationalism, embrace people from other countries and are often in the forefront of the environmental movement and calls for social justice. I suggest it is this knowledge that motivates conservative leaning groups of all kinds to resist lowering the voting age.

If representative democracy is to become truly reflective the maximum level of participation by the largest number and broadest range of people needs to be facilitated and encouraged, and this not just in the political sphere, but in all areas of contemporary life. In countries where the voting age has been kept at 18, a huge percentage of the population has no voice of their own; in Britain, which has an ageing population that’s approximately 17 million young people. This is wholly un-democratic and needs to change.

The concerns and views of young people must be heard, acknowledged and acted upon and they should be granted that most rudimentary of democratic rights – the right to vote. The discussion should be focused on what level to lower the voting age to, not whether it should be reduced. The suggestion by Prof David Runciman that children as young as six should be allowed to vote does indeed seem extreme, particularly in a single step, the age most widely proposed is 16; a process of incremental changes, which can be reviewed, may be most fruitful and children themselves should be engaged in the debate.

Democracy is participation: not only should children be allowed to vote in elections of all kinds, they should have an active role in the management of schools and colleges and the composition of the educational curriculum. Facilitating such participation would not only encourage broader social responsibility amongst young people, it would enrich and strengthen democracy itself.

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Graham Peebles is a British freelance writer and charity worker. He set up The Create Trust in 2005 and has run education projects in Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and India. 

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