The Youth Vote Matters. But Just How Young Should Voters Be? [Part I]

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26 Responses

  1. AndyK says:

    As a matter of democratic first principles (since this would obviously require a constitutional amendment and have no real legal limitations as such), we are, as you imply, dealing with competency. And in principle, there should be no formal floor on the age of voters. If you are young but able to demonstrate moral judgment / political / cognitive acumen, you should be allowed to vote.

    Conversely, no matter your age, if you cannot pass a simple civics exam, you have no business voting. If it’s good enough for citizenship, it should be good enough for voting.

  2. anon says:

    I am not sure that cognitive competence should be the singular requirement for voting eligibility. The main argument for moving the voting age from 21 to 18 was the idea that if you are old enough to go to war for your country you should be old enough to vote to decide who will be leading the country. In other words, those with “skin in the game” with respect to questions of national policy should be entitled to vote.
    It does not seem to me that the average 16 year old has any real skin in the game – still supported by parents, not a full participant in the work force, etc.

  3. Joey says:

    AndyK, couldn’t states decide to allow 16 year olds to vote absent any federal constitutional change?

  4. AndyK says:

    anon: I agree that “skin in the game” matters, but there is no draft so no one has any “skin in the game” anymore, and in any event only males did, previously. Furthermore, as the Founders noted, the Lumpenproletariat (I believe they used that term) have no skin in the game either, so property requirements or poll taxes seem appropriate.

    Joey: My comment was simply to withhold a lot of argument, e.g. DP / EP arguments against competency requirements.

  5. Brett Bellmore says:

    I would argue that the threshold for voting, for all civil liberties, should be the same. Do we really want to create classes of voters with fewer civil liberties than other voters?

  6. Joe says:

    “threshold for voting, for all civil liberties”

    We currently allow those under twelve to go to libraries, so does this mean they should vote, serve on juries, purchase all types of firearms, etc.?

    Then, you jump to “create classes of voters” … makes sense to have one age here, I guess, though it does not necessarily seem blatantly wrong if there is a bit of variability. Marriage, e.g., is a “civil liberty” (Loving v. VA, etc.) and many states allow those under 18 to marry.

  7. Joe says:

    anon, should voting be tied, e.g., to emancipation of minors or service in the military (if you serve at 17, you get to vote)?

  8. Vivian Hamilton says:

    Thank you for your thoughts. My next couple of posts will address some of the issues you raise: criteria/qualifications for electoral inclusion generally; vote decision-making competence as one of those qualifications and how we ought to define vote decision-making competence (note: incorporating even basic levels of civics or political knowledge into a conception of electoral competence theoretically justifies voter qualification rules that would operate to disfranchise a significant proportion of the current adult electorate); and assessing the age range by which developmentally normal citizens are likely to have attained the relevant competence. I look forward to your thoughts on any/all of these.

    With respect to Constitutional restrictions on lowering the voting age: The 26th Amendment forbids the federal and state governments from denying or abridging the right to vote of citizens aged 18 or older on account of age. So the age of electoral majority may not be set above eighteen. No constitutional or other federal provision, however, prohibits states from lowering the age of electoral majority; each state retains that power. Oregon v. Mitchell (1970), moreover, held that Congress had the power to set voter qualifications for federal–but not state–elections.

  9. Orin Kerr says:

    Hi, Vivian, how are you? One thought that comes to mind is that the question of minimum age criteria for different legal categories comes up often in the law, and it would make sense that we have a consistent set of rules — or at least that we can explain differences in treatment based on some consistent principles. Examples from the criminal justice system include juvenile court systems; child pornography and statutory rape laws; and eligibility for the death penalty. Some use 18 as a usual cutoff; others use lower ages. I’m curious about whether you or others see the project as being about age-cutoffs more generally, or just about voting rights. Anyway, looking forward to your posts.

  10. Brett Bellmore says:

    “We currently allow those under twelve to go to libraries”

    But don’t have to, which is why it’s not a “civil liberty”.

    What I’m suggesting is that the right to vote, contract, own guns, drink, and so forth, ought to kick in at the same age. Otherwise you’ve got some voting citizens living under different effective laws than others.

    Which I suppose won’t bother you if the change in voting age isn’t based on the belief they’re responsible people capable of making their own decisions, but instead just the notion they’ll tend to vote for your party.

  11. Shag from Brookline says:

    George Bernard Shaw felt that “Youth is wasted on the young.” Contrast this with the PA Dutch (actually German?) saying: Ve grow too soon alt und too late schmart.” Let’s consider the approach in “A Clockwork Orange” that might fit with #10’s suggestion.

  12. Joe says:

    But don’t have to, which is why it’s not a “civil liberty”.

    It’s tied to a minors’ right to read, which is a civil liberty. We “have” to do that according to the USSC. Minors have free speech rights.

    What I’m suggesting is that the right to vote, contract, own guns, drink, and so forth, ought to kick in at the same age. Otherwise you’ve got some voting citizens living under different effective laws than others.

    What I’m suggesting is that the right to read, civil liberty, might not kick in at the same age as the right to vote. I noted how marriage, civil liberty, doesn’t now either. You might be allowed to marry at 14. Should 14 year olds in such states have the right to vote? Is this a problem? Do they live under different “effective laws”?

    Which I suppose won’t bother you if the change in voting age isn’t based on the belief they’re responsible people capable of making their own decisions, but instead just the notion they’ll tend to vote for your party.

    Or, perhaps, it is not a “party” thing but a belief that different sorts of rights develop over the age of the person. So, a fourteen year old might have the right to read, practice religion, have some contractual rights and even the right to marry in some cases but not mature enough to vote or be liable to be executed by the state.

    “The notion they’ll tend to vote for your party” is not really the first thing that comes to mind when disagreeing with your one age for all proposal.

  13. dht says:

    What I’m suggesting is that the right to vote, contract, own guns, drink, and so forth, ought to kick in at the same age.

    IIRC, at least some states allow drinking of wine and beer at 18, but only allow hard liquor at 21. This would seem to argue in favor of at least some variance in rights based on age.

  14. Brett Bellmore says:

    I’m not arguing this is prevailing practice, I’m arguing it ought to be.

  15. Shag from Brookline says:

    I understand that “civics” is not in the curricula of grade and high schools. Does this connect to the extent that our youth may be considered too young to vote? When the youth of today come “of age” to vote, how well prepared are they? How might this compare to when “civics” was a part of the curricula? (I am sure that some youth today are prepared to vote meaningfully when they come “of age.”) If youth are deprived of the vote, who will look out for their interests? While parents might, parents have other issues that may not directly impact the issues of youth. When youth come “of age” to vote, might they be confused or angry that no one focused on their issues? If youth get confused or angry before they come “of age,” might there be a potential “A Clockwork Orange Spring”?

    Query whether #10’s persistent suggestion challenges federalism/states rights?

  16. JAD says:

    A very interesting post. It really was news to me that 16 year old voter eligibility has either been enacted or is being seriously considered in a significant number of countries. This certainly justifies meaningful consideration of this proposal in the good old USA as well.

    In considering this issue, I know that there will be certain contradictory tendencies with American court decisions that will need to be addressed. For one thing, much of the justification for banning the execution of persons less than 18 years of age rests on the view that these individuals are not mature enough to sufficiently know the consequences of their actions. Agreement with this premise may call into question the ability of 16 and 17 year old citizens to cast sufficiently knowledgeable votes – or at least one will have to pursuasively now argue that a meaningful distinction between these two situations can be drawn.

    The whole issue of determining when one assumes the rights of full adult citizenship is an extremely fuzzy one. (At the same time the voting age was lowered to 18 the drinking age was raised all the way to 21.) But these uncertainties should provide more – not fewer – reasons to seriouly address the issues raised in this post.

  17. Brett Bellmore says:

    It’s just the next obvious step in the drive to maximize the number of low information voters. Nothing more.

  18. Shag from Brookline says:

    Brett is obviously worried about the changing demographics. But he should keep in mind that “low information voters” include many angry old men who can’t accept the changing demographics. Some of us understand the phrase “low information voters” as code.

  19. Brett Bellmore says:

    Look, Shag, if the only liberty you propose to extend to teens is the vote, you’re pretty clearly demonstrating that you’re not for this because you think teens have good judgement.

    That kind of leaves being for it because they’ll vote the way you like.

    I don’t think “Extending the vote to people presumed to have bad judgement because they’ll probably vote for my party” is a very admirable goal.

    I am seriously addressing this issue: People should, as a normative matter, get all their liberties at the same age. Every argument against lowering the drinking age, or the age at which one can make contracts, or the age at which one can marry (Without consent of parents.) is an argument against lowering the voting age.

    Unless your goal is to increase the number of voters with bad judgement and poor impulse control. Which IS a goal for people who suppose they’re the easiest voters to win over.

  20. Shag from Brookline says:

    I do not have the goals that Brett suggests. I am not pushing for reducing the voting age for youth. But the issue raised by the poster is interesting. I have no way of knowing whether lowering the voting age of youth would “probably vote for my party.” With the power conferred by the majority in Citizens United, it is conceivable that many millions could be spent by wealthy donors to protect their personal agenda in the same manner that advertising has been aimed at even younger youth than 14 to influence their “demands” upon their parents for certain products. (See Brett’s closing line in #19: “Which IS a goal for people who suppose they’re the easiest voters to win over”) This is a matter of positive law, not natural law. Legislatures at the the federal and state levels can make these determinations based upon evidence, experience. (Recall Justice Holmes’ “The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience. …”)

    I don’t think Brett’s:

    “People should, as a normative matter, get all their liberties at the same age.”

    makes sense. Without getting into a discussion of when life begins, do liberties (constitutional and natural) begin with birth? Just because a newborn cannot speak so we can understand, doesn’t the Speech Clause of the First Amendment apply, even though the newborn may not be able able to exercise that liberty? The newborn may not be able to squeeze the trigger of an assault weapon either. We could go on and on (and probably will) with various liberties. Perhaps “all their liberties” are subject to limitations, until a child reaches the age of reason, which can differ from child to child unless positive law determines such.

    So perhaps Brett should enumerate “all their liberties” so we may test whether there should be a “same age” rule for each listed liberty. This is not “a normative matter.” Consider the plight of the angry old men (as defined by Sen. Lindsay Graham during the recent campaign) who may very well be “low information voters” permitted to vote their interests. Perhaps some youth under current voting age are better informed (including via Internet skills developed at an early age) than some of these angry old men obviously angered by the changing demographics. Youth must be served; they are our future. Many of these angry old men were in lockstep with Bush/Cheney for 8 years, during which too many of our young were killed, maimed, injured. (Let’s not go back to the tragic days of Vietnam.) Who effectively represent the interests of our youth who cannot vote due to positive law requirements? These angry old men look to the past, going back to the founding (with the “blip”, to many of them, of the Civil War that changed some of the sins of the Founders). These angry old men are the past, relying on the long ago past; they are not our future. I speak as an 82 year old man who avoids being angry, positively.

  21. Brett Bellmore says:

    Shag, Vivian closes with, “That younger voters have demonstrated a proclivity to lean left may make some policy makers reluctant to even entertain what ought to be a question of democratic legitimacy, not politics. That may ultimately be political reality, but, as future posts will aim to show, it would also be a real shame.”

    I’m pointing out, “That younger voters have demonstrated a proclivity to lean left” is likely the only reason this proposal is being taken seriously. Given the lack of a push to extend other liberties similarly, it certainly can’t be an expression of confidence they’re intellectually up to the task.

    Now, “question of democratic legitimacy”, this is one of the major fault lines in understandings of democracy. There are essentially two conflicting views of voting: One is that it’s chief purpose is “democratic legitimacy”, the other that it’s chief purpose is making public choices.

    If you’re from the former line of thought, you basically don’t care if the proposed new class of voters are morons, ignorant, fools, sociopaths, and so forth. Every new vote is a step forward.

    From the latter line of thought, extending the franchise to marginally qualified voters degrades what is fundamentally a decision making procedure, by including people who are progressively less qualified to make sound decisions.

    I am, unabashedly, of the latter school of thought. I remember when I was 16: I might have had a genius level IQ, but I was still a fool, with no real life experience.

    But, if you have a higher opinion of teens, demonstrate it, by trusting them with other liberties, too. I say that otherwise you’re not expressing trust in them, just a self-interested desire for their votes.

  22. Shag from Brookline says:


    “I remember when I was 16: I might have had a genius level IQ, but I was still a fool, with no real life experience.

    raises questions of how his real life experiences since have prepared him to be a high information voter. But rather than dwell on Brett’s anecdotal approach, I go to Mark Twain’s:

    “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”

    Brett might keep in mind that with aging, angry old men (See Sen. Graham) might fit his concern with the degrading of ” … marginally qualified voters ,,,” dwelling in the long ago past. As noted in an earlier comment, if the voting age were reduced, I don’t know how new-youth-voters would actually vote, although I am aware of the power of money talking via Super Pacs embraced by Citizens United: plenty of old money to protect old money.

  23. Joe says:

    I am seriously addressing this issue: People should, as a normative matter, get all their liberties at the same age.

    Fine. Twelve year olds have the right to read, to contract etc. “Seriously” explain your one size fits all policy & how it would either give them the right to vote (which like jury duty requires special judgment and maturity and is specifically other directed in a particular way) or deny them any rights, since all rights kick in at the same time.

    Explain why we should deny 14 year olds the right to read, control over their own reproductive capacity etc. if we don’t wan to give them the right to vote or sentence people to die. Address Shag’s point that liberties do in fact start at birth. Thus, your ideal is to deny seven year olds basic rights [e.g. right against unjustly putting them in a mental institution] or give them the right to vote.

    I’m pointing out, “That younger voters have demonstrated a proclivity to lean left” is likely the only reason this proposal is being taken seriously.

    See also, the “not bother you” comment from Brett suggesting the motivation is partisan. The quote is from the opening discussion that notes some people are AGAINST thinking about this because of the belief it would support a certain ideological position. From this, Brett is now saying the ONLY reason altering the age downward is being taken seriously is because it would help the left.

    This is a sadly limited view of things. Is it really so hard to believe that some might be thinking basic principles here? Is everything so partisan?

    Anyway, again, I would really like Brett to face up to the logic of his “one age for all” principle. Young children have liberties. Unless we give them the right to vote, what do we do there? “Seriously” this seems problematic.

  24. Brett Bellmore says:

    “This is a sadly limited view of things.” which the author of the piece adopted first.

  25. Vivian Hamilton says:

    Thank you again for your comments. (And hi Orin — It’s nice to hear from you!) I was especially glad to read that, like me, many of you wonder about how the states have gone about setting various age requirements in different policy-making contexts. I haven’t written about the juvenile justice context (not because I think it’s less important, obviously, but because both the Supreme Court and academics have focused so much attention on it already); but I have been thinking and writing about the rights of adolescents and emerging adults in various other contexts. Across the board, we can do a better job of weighing the importance of a given right, the capacities required for its competent exercise, the risks/costs of error, and the capacities of individuals at different age ranges. If we do that in different policy contexts, it should become apparent that no single “age of majority” can be appropriate. For example, in the next couple of posts I’ll argue that, given the fundamental importance of the franchise, and given that the voting context is one in which adolescents predictably make adult-like decisions (not rushed or under pressure, not in the presence of peers, etc.), and given the relatively low cost of an erroneous decision, we should lower the voting age.

    In later posts, though, I’ll argue the opposite with respect to adolescent drivers. Driving is a context involving numerous factors that predictably hinder adolescent decision making. Given the public health costs imposed by teen drivers (car crashes, in which they’re overwhelmingly at fault, kill more of them each year than any other cause–that’s a high cost imposed by error), research establishing that teens’ increased crash risk results, not primarily from inexperience but instead from immature regulatory competence that develops only with time and age, etc., states ought to consider raising the driving age. (It is also notable that, since the United States is the earliest-licensing nation in the developed world, U.S. teens are at greater risk of being killed or injured in a car crash than their counterparts in other developed nations.)

    (Oh–Joe, in Comment 6 mentioned marriage and rightly notes that the states allow, with various restrictions, adolescents younger than 18 to marry. I’ll argue that we ought not allow individuals under 18 to marry at all.)

  26. Joe says:

    #24 for some reason skips over everything I said — including the basic problem — and (falsely) says the author “adopted” a certain position. She did not. She noted some might oppose a change for ideological reasons.

    I appreciate #25 though am inclined to disagree with a total marriage ban of that sort.