How to give children the vote
The right to vote is an inherent right of all citizens, and the first and most important marker of the capacity to participate in the setting of social priorities.
Children should be given that right from birth. But until they reach the age of majority it should be exercised by proxy with the custodial parent or parents given an extra vote for every child under their guardianship.
This scheme of voting has a long history, but most recently it has become known as a “Demeny” voting, after the noted demographer Paul Demeny who put the idea forward in a 1986 publication.
In fact, Demeny mentions the idea only briefly on the very last page of an article devoted to low fertility:
Strengthen the influence of families with children in the political system. When newcomers are admitted to human society, they should not be left disenfranchised for some 18 years: let custodial parents exercise the children’s voting rights until they come of age. (Demeny 1986, page 354.)
His proposal was motivated by a belief that it would increase fertility rates, declining fertility being perceived to be an important public policy issue at the time he was writing.
But a human rights perspective suggests that the idea of extending the franchise to children should be done without regard to consequences. It should be done because it is inherently appropriate: it respects the inalienable and inherent rights of children as citizens.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is clear that children have inherent civil and political rights, for example calling in Article 12 for governments to
assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.
and that for these purposes
the child shall in particular be provided the opportunity to be heard in any judicial and administrative proceedings affecting the child, either directly, or through a representative or an appropriate body, in a manner consistent with the procedural rules of national law.
A “right” entails a “duty”, and therefore involves not just the right holder, but also an agent accountable for upholding the right. The right is inherent in the individual, the duty is required of the state.
The Convention is also clear that governments should respect the responsibilities and duties of parents and families to uphold the rights of the child “in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child”.
The fact that children are not given the franchise, that families are not able to exercise the franchise on their behalf, is a failure to uphold the civil and political rights of the child. It should be addressed by appropriate electoral reforms.
In a 2011 radio interview with the CBC radio show As It Happens, Demeny motivated his voting scheme not at all in terms of its consequences, but rather by the idea that it was a natural progression of the democratic project: just as this project was concerned with the extension of the franchise without regard to property and class during the 19th century; just as it was concerned with the extension of the franchise without regard to gender during the 20th century; so it should be concerned with the extension of the franchise during the 21st century without regard to generational status.
A “rights” framework is also valuable in the discussion of socio-economic rights that require a “positive” duty from the state: not because it emphasizes adjudication as a means to uphold these rights, but rather because it encourages engagement in the process determining social priorities.
The right to education, to health care, and to live free from poverty cannot really be settled through adjudication. They reflect the setting of political priorities, require government spending, and therefore the exercise of trade-offs.
But the politics of making these trade-offs is biased because children do not have political voice. A rights framework makes us more sensitive to this bias.
Just as society transfers economic resources to parents for the benefit of children, so also it should transfer political resources.
The actual design of a Demeny voting scheme needs fuller discussion. Demeny suggested that each parent should be given the right to exercise an extra half vote for each child under their guardianship.
Others will be more cautious in giving parents any extra votes at all, particularly in cases of abuse, or when the family is not concerned with the welfare of children, or when children no longer reside with their parents.
But my own view is that mothers, or when appropriate the custodial parent, should be given the entire proxy vote for each child under their guardianship.
This follows the precedent in Canada and other countries of transferring economic resources intended for the child directly to the mother, a policy that reflects empirical research documenting that household expenditures tend on average to more clearly reflect the needs of the child when the mother’s bargaining power in the household is stronger.
The bottom line is that extending the franchise to children will increase the incentive for families to vote, but more importantly it will also increase the incentive for politicians to reflect their concerns. During election campaigns daycare centres will be visited as often as workplaces and homes for the aged.
Only in this way will the socio-economic rights of children be fairly recognized, and only in this way is there dignity for all in both the fundamental institutions of society and the conduct of public policy.