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.

17 thoughts on “How to give children the vote

  1. Interesting post Miles. The “How” in the title is the sticky point. You discuss how the mechanics of such a voting scheme might work, but given current demographics, how these electoral reforms would even be considered is difficult to imagine. The conservatives certainly won’t raise the idea – women are more left leaning than men (unless they could put something in the water to increase the ratio of sons to daughters, since apparently having sons pushes women more to the right) and Conservative support is higher among the elderly than those of child-bearing age. I’m not convinced a court challenge based on the Charter would be successful at this point either. Although you suggest that electoral change be based on rights, without regards to the consequences, I think that unless we can show that there are negative consequences for children, things won’t change.

    1. Thank you for your feedback Janice.
      I see what you mean by the use of the word “How” in the title. I guess what I had in mind was to describe a voting mechanism other than lowering the age at majority. “How” to actually do this is something I have left out altogether, as you so correctly point out.
      best, Miles

      1. As proof of your point, The Globe and Mail changed the title of this article to “Why we should give children the vote” in the version it posted:

        But judging by some of the comments made on The Globe website this may have given the impression that the article was calling for elimination of the minimum voting age rather than for the right to be exercised by proxy.

  2. I have written a similar argument, but related to children’s religious rights. Here is an excerpt:

    “If a child is indoctrinated into a particular religious dogma by authoritarian parents from the earliest age, their right to freedom of expression and information denied through restrictive, narrow-minded ‘education’, and they are unaware of the full extent of their human rights, it becomes impossible for them to exercise those rights, either as a child or later as an adult. I have encountered countless believers who are so unaware of their own rights that they insist that religious freedom does not include the right to be free from religion. But if the right to freedom of religion has any meaning at all, it must mean that everyone, including children, is free to choose their own religious beliefs or none. When that freedom is denied to a child, it is also denied to the adult that child will become. Protecting a person’s rights while they are a child is the only to way to protect that person’s rights once they are an adult. That’s what a child’s right to an open future means, reaching adulthood with their capacity to exercise all their rights still intact. Protecting the full range of children’s rights protects human rights for everyone.”

  3. This isn’t an idea that gives children a vote. It’s an idea that gives parents extra votes. It’s a violation of the very important principle of one person/one vote. Democracy went through a long hard struggle to arrive at that principle. Your proposal would cast that principle out. Doesn’t seem like a good idea to me.

  4. “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.”

    1. NOTHING should be done “without regard to consequences.” Ever.

    2. If you really think this is an inherent right being denied to children and you don’t care about consequences, it only makes sense to give it directly to the children, not to their parents. Why are you giving it by proxy to parents? Because you care about the consequences of giving it directly to children. So your argument is internally inconsistent.

  5. This is a terrible idea.

    I’ve been a supporter of lowering the voting age ever since I had an (apparently, in retrospect, excellent) social studies teacher when I was 16. There was an election that year, and one of the assignments was researching the candidates and the issues in the student’s riding. After doing that assignment, I wanted to vote, because I knew what was happening. What made it more frustrating was that, when talking to adults, it was quite clear that many (most?) of them had not done the very basic homework that I now knew you should do before voting.

    This makes Prof. Corak’s suggestion particularly repugnant to me since I know, from experience, that neither my father nor my mother would have voted in my interests nor as I would have wanted them to. (Actually my father probably would have, when I was 16 and able to articulate my position, and if he had been given 2 ballots, not one ballot with a weight of 2. Not sure about my mother. But before I had been taught anything about elections and politics, neither parent would have voted my interests.) Their priorities were different from mine: they would have had a serious conflict of interests if they had been given a vote, that was “mine” only in Newspeak, by proxy. It wasn’t a question of malice, they just wouldn’t have understood that I could possibly have had a different opinion from them.

    So I agree with Martin Hunt. This isn’t a proposal that improves the rights of minors at all. It’s a proposal that increases the power of a particular group of adults that Prof. Corak favours. If anything, it’s at the expense of minors. (18-year-olds are more likely to vote in the interests of 17-year-olds who are unrelated to them than the 17-year-olds’ parents, because the interests of 17- and 18-year-olds are fairly similar. So the effect of a dilution of the voting power of 18-year-olds in favour of people in their 30’s and older is likely to be a small reduction in the welfare of 17-year-olds.)

    If you want to improve the rights of minors, reduce the voting age to 16 or 14 or whatever, but the minor who is voting has to go to the ballot box by themselves and mark the paper in privacy, with the normal standards of secrecy given to any ballot.

    I think we should do this because in my experience the difficulty of casting an informed ballot is about the difficulty of doing a senior high school assignment.

  6. To argue for mothers getting extra votes on the basis that this would give them more influence on policy and funding ignores the fact that virtually all funding and policy at all levels of government focuses on women to the exclusion and marginalization of men and fathers. This is another “equality through inequality” scheme. The practical result would be further divisive conflict between mothers and fathers in divorce courts. This scheme is profoundly disrespectful of fathers, the dignity of children and of equality provisions in the charter.

    1. Glenn … this is a fair comment. How would you imagine doing this? Keeping in mind that no proposal is going to be perfect. I somewhat hesitate accepting Demeny’s original proposal of splitting the vote because of the complexity associated with having a half-vote. I just wonder what is a practical and workable model that has a perception of being fair. And so I imagined just following the precedent of how economic resources are transferred to families. Miles.

      1. I imagine that children have a right to their parents. Both parents, as imperfect as some parents may be, but kids with both “imperfect” parents show far better outcomes than those who have lost a parent. The biggest factor in loss of a parent, and thus the biggest disadvantage for children, is divorce, and the current sole-custody preferentialist family law system. I don’t see how kids would benefit if mothers had two votes, but I see how they would benefit hugely if we changed the system so that no fit parent lost their children in divorce without a reasonable, evidence-based standard being met. This would mean removing all the perverse incentives that governments have built in to bias this system in favour of sole maternal custody. Those expensive incentives drive fatherlessness, which drives much of the inequalities shown in the social science outcomes for the children of single parent homes. The idea that we would use the biases against fathers built into the tax system, the domestic violence system, the legal system and the gender issues and funding systems of governments to further bias the voting system is a slippery slope toward using the electoral system to marginalize other groups that governments and elites do not like. Maybe we should give fathers the right to vote on behalf of their boys, and mother the right to vote on behalf of girls? The Liberal Party had a multiple vote system where women got two votes and men got one. They abandoned that because it was dumb and fewer and fewer men would vote for them.

      2. Hmmm … something to think about. Thanks. Maybe give the votes to the family and let them decide how to exercise them, and the votes also becomes something to negotiated in divorce settlements. I am not certain about giving votes along gender lines: does that really solve the problem? Overall on average it works to share votes, but the point is fairness at the individual family level. Some families are all boys, some all girls.

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