Suffrage is political franchise, the right to vote in a public election. When modern democracy began approximately two centuries ago, only rich landowning white men held the privilege to vote. Gradually, this right has been extended to minorities such as other races, women, and the poor. There is still one group, however, that is notably missing: children (and their Umwelt and Interoception). Is it plausible that a child has great access to their Intuitive genius via a lack of conditioned paradigms and flawed logic? Many view the lack of a political voice for children as a modern-day injustice in the same way it was for minorities and women. And just as these historical minorities fought and eventually won their right to vote, advocates have been calling for voting reform for children. We could practice this with delegative democracy.
Children are the forgotten constituency of the modern era. In many developed countries around the world, a higher standard of living, modern health care, and improved diets have resulted in extending the average human lifespan. This has resulted in a significant growth in the elderly population. Meanwhile, fertility rates in these same countries have plummeted. Therefore, more resources have been used to support the elderly than children. In fact, the resources used to support children has dropped. As a result, there is a close relationship between these major demographic trends and the rights of children, as shown below.
Since children are disenfranchised to the degree that they have no right to vote, whilst the elderly capture an increasing share of the adult votes, policy and the resultant allocation of public resources are skewed in favor of the needs of the elderly. In 1992, using United States data from 1959 to 1990, political scientist Paul Peterson demonstrated this connection between policy and impact on children and the elderly. His research clearly showed how the greater share of the elderly vote resulted in policies that favored the elderly, taking a bigger piece of the social welfare pie for their use, at the same time decreasing the share for children.
The net result of this demographic trend is to further erode the rights of children. The political system needs to change to reflect the real needs of the changing demographics. In spite of the noble voices of the elderly who proclaim concern for the younger generation, research shows that the opposite is in fact the case. The reality today is that children suffer immensely for lack of representation. For a country such as the United States that built its constitution on taxation with representation, it speaks volumes that 75 million citizens, or 25% of the population, is in effect taxed without representation. Globally, the figure is even worse; children comprise a third of the world’s population (UN, 2015), but they remain almost universally disenfranchised. Without a voice they have to work extremely hard to be counted.
By issuing debt of any kind, whether financial, ecological, or both, this is a form of taxing the future generation (Aoki and Vaithianathan, 2009). It leaves the future generation to deal with deficiencies in capital or the natural environment. The debt is incurred by the current political class, without little of any consultation with the next generation. In other words, the youth have no political representation on matters which will dramatically affect them for decades to come. They are the ones most affected by corruption, imperfect decision making, and abuse.
If children were allowed to vote, could their representation correct the current political disequilibrium that emerges from imbalanced representation? Some recent social experiments show that they can.
On Sept 18th, 2009, nine days before the Germany’s general election, a youth organization called the German Federal Youth conducted a voting experiment called the U18 (for “under 18”) to determine if children voting would have an impact on the outcomes of the general election. This experiment sought to answer the question: what impact would citizens under 18 years of age have if they are given the opportunity to vote in an election? 127,208 children cast their votes at 1,000 voting stations in an impressive demonstration of the high interest among children in participating in the democratic process. The youngest voter was nine years old.
The results speak for themselves. Leaders of the political parties were impressed by the turnout. The mock vote of the children was not counted in the general election, but if they had been, the outcome of the election could have been starkly different. The children voters’ views and preferences were highly divergent from those of their older counterparts.
Even if the voting age were dropped, there is another condition that must be met if children are to make real gains; they must turn up to vote. Unfortunately, recent research shows that the lowest voter turnout is consistently found in the young voters’ age bracket, ages 19 to 29, the very ones who could make the most difference in correcting historical imbalances. In the 2014 US midterm elections, only 19.9% of Americans in that age bracket actually turned up to vote (Circle, 2014 Youth Turnout and Youth Registration Rates Lowest Ever Recorded; Changes Essential in 2016). This was the lowest rate of youth turnout ever recorded in the U.S.A.
This is a clear argument against the idea that there are people who cannot vote. Even children, who are engaged, can have intelligent political actions. Therefore, delegative democracy has a strong foundation to build upon.
Critics commonly argue that children do not have sufficient life experience to appreciate the consequences of their decisions. This argument goes back all the way to Plato’s Republic, written in approximately 380 BC, wherein Plato argues against democracy. In the Republic, Plato establishes that there are true answers as to how a state should be run. Next, he argues that these answers are not obvious and generally speaking, the general population will not have these answers. If leaders are chosen through a democratic process and there happens to be a charismatic leader who can easily manipulate them but lacks true knowledge of how to run the state, the equally ignorant public could conceivably vote such a leader into power. This has been proven true over and over again. Plato’s ideal republic, therefore, is governed by the knowledgeable, and the philosophers. Here we see the introduction of the concept of the espiocrat, the ruler who has greater knowledge of normative political truths.
The argument for epistocracy or rule by the knowledgeable, is set out in a series of four claims in David Estlund’s Democratic Authority (Estlund, 2009):
- There are true, procedure-independent normative standards by which political decisions ought to be judged. (The truth claim)
- For any demos, it is true that there is a small group of people, the epistocrats, who know those normative standards better than others and, thus, know better what the decisions that conform to those standards are. (The privileged knowledge status claim)
- For any demos, if it is true that the epistocrats know those standards better than others etc., then these people should have political authority over others. (The authority claim)
- Thus, for any given demos, epistocrats should have political authority over others. (The epistocratic conclusion)
In this classic work on democratic theory, Estlund presents a theory called epistemic proceduralism which avoids epistocracy. Epistocracy is a system in which only the informed vote. He argued that while a few people probably do know best, this can only be used in political justification if their expertise is acceptable from all reasonable points of view.
These critics hold that children, lacking this maturity, could actually damage the voting process, bringing about undesirable results. Yet, numerous research studies show that it is not possible to broadly label everyone under 18 years of age in the same categories. Children’s parliaments around the globe have achieved positive political outcomes comparable to adult parliaments (see Children’s Parliament section). In many cases, studies have shown that young teens have far more knowledge of current trends about the world, especially technological and social media than some of their parents. Again, this shows that most people can be informed enough to trust essential decision-making processes to them.
In 1986, demographer Paul Demeny wrote a passing commentary in a paper exploring ways to improve low fertility rates in countries around the world. Developed countries face a double threat of low fertility rates and an increasing proportion of elderly, resulting in a dwindling number of capable workers who need to support a growing population of the elderly.
In a disproportionately older population, voting is skewed towards the needs of the elderly. One way to begin to correct this result is to increase the number of young voters by dropping the voting age. Another way is to do what Demeny proposed in his paper: Giving parents a proxy vote for their children.
Demeny reasoned that such a proxy vote would support more policies that support the rights of children. Demeny held that children should not be in a position of having no voice for the first 18 years of their lives and suggested allowing parents to exercise their voting rights until they come of age (Demeny, 1986). In effect, Demeny envisioned a proxy vote in which each parent would receive and exercise an additional half vote for each child under his or her guardianship. Demeny’s proposal gained traction in the academic and political science community and has since come to be popularly known as Demeny voting.
In recent years, a number of attempts have been made to grant children voting rights through Demeny voting. Two cases stand out in particular, Germany and Japan. In 2003 and again in 2008, members of the German parliament introduced the “Kinderwahlrecht” bill (German term for Demeny voting) to the Bundestag (the national legislature of Germany), which would have given proxy voting rights to parents (Weimann, 2002). However, both the 2003 and 2008 proposals were defeated.
Japan was motivated to seriously consider introducing Demeny voting for the same reasons that the United States and Germany have been exploring it; all three countries have a common problem of an increasingly older population and a shrinking youth population due to low fertility rates. Due to a lack of representation from children, policy trends in all three countries have been significantly skewed to favor the elderly and disadvantage the young. Noticing this, researchers Reiko Aoki of the Centre for Intergenerational Studies at Hitotsubashi University and Rhema Vaithianathan of the University of Auckland authored a research paper that proposed Demeny voting as a political solution in the face of low fertility rates in Japan (Aoki & Vaithianathan, 2009). Citing Japan’s 2005 census, the researchers found that within the existing population, the share of the vote was skewed towards those over 55 years of age and that a Demeny vote would rebalance the share of the vote between the elderly and the young.
Without a voice at the table, it is easy for anyone, let alone children to become disaffected with the democratic establishment. This may actually cause low voter turnout as they do get the right to vote, because they do not believe that their opinion matters. With this form of delegative democracy, that trend could reverse.
The debate surrounding Demeny voting is complex. Some critics argue that Demeny voting that gives parents additional votes can be easily abused. But all systems of voting are currently abused. Some critics have pointed out that some cultural and religious groupings have a much higher number of children on average and they could use those votes to over-represent their own political agendas. Japanese researcher Reiko Aoki offers a contrasting view. When interviewed about the fairness of giving parents an additional vote, he replied that:
“Currently, the pension system (the relationship between premium and receipt) is independent of how many children the person has. With pay as you go, pensions are paid by the current generation. Even if you did not spend time changing diapers, helping them learn to read and write, driving them to piano and soccer lessons, losing sleep, or having to stay home when children get sick, you are paid the same amount as those who did. Is this fair?” (Sharp, 2011)
This indicates that democracy as a whole is predisposed to take care of everyone in it, whether old or young, sick or healthy, poor or rich. Since all of these people are part of the system, and in one form or another pay for the care of others, should we all not have a system where we all have a direct voice in the outcome?
Consider the case of children’s parliaments. In a 2014 paper on the subject, researcher John Wall counted at least 30 countries which have some form of children’s parliaments, including India, Norway, Germany, Slovenia, Bolivia, Ecuador, Brazil, Nigeria, Congo, Burkina Faso, Liberia, New Zealand, England, Scotland, and a Children’s United Parliament of the World (Austin, 2010; Cabannes, 2005; Children’s United Parliament of the World, 2009; Conrad, 2009). Some of these parliaments have made responsible decisions equal in skill, finesse, understanding, and discretion to that of any adult politician (Wall, 2014). Again, more proof that age is not a sole indicator of wisdom and intelligence.
In the 1990s, one of the first children’s parliaments in Rajasthan, India, comprised of 6 to 14-year-olds, had significant positive impact on their community such as improving educational policies, dismissing poor teachers, improving community services, and funding new utilities (Bajpai, 2003: 469; John, 2003: 235–9). These unique insights could be used to improve the governance of higher institutions, like universities or public utilities.
In Bolivia, the children’s parliament worked closely with the adult national assembly making important key recommendations (Sarkar and Mendoza, 2005) and in 1998, the children’s parliament in Barra Mansa state, Brazil participated in the allocation of municipal funds, ensuring the city council addressed children’s needs (Cabannes, 2005:1 191). In another case in Brazil, three students presented a proposal to a plenary session of Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies arguing about the hazards of using flatbed trucks to transport school children. This argument was accepted by Congress These cases illustrate that children are capable of making responsible decisions that impact public policy, and is another illustration of what any motivated population could share with a larger Umwelt.
We are not the only ones who have noticed this. Progressive governments around the world are enhancing governance by giving children a voice in setting policies. In 2011, UNICEF’s Inter-Parliamentary Union issued A Handbook on Child Participation in Parliament. This book provided governments with guidelines on how to include children in the decision-making process. Successful children’s participatory engagements in parliament included:
New Zealand developed an Agenda for Children based on an ambitious national consultative process in which children were asked to express their society-wide problems and desires (Brown and McCormack, 2005)
South Africa launched the Children in Action (Dikwankwetla) project to include children in some parliamentary hearings and public debates (Jamieson and Mukoma, 2010)
The Israeli Knesset now regularly invites children to participate in its child-related committees (Ben-Arieh and Boyer, 2005: 50)
The government of Rwanda holds a National Summit for Children and Youth every year around a particular theme (Pells, 2010)
The UK has instituted four Children’s Commissioners (for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), whose purpose is to promote children’s concerns in government legislation and policy (Williams and Croke, 2008: 184-7)
The Kazakhstan government worked with UNICEF to organize a political consultative process with youth aged 10–24, called the National Adolescents and Youth Forum (Karkara and Khudaibergenov, 2009)
There is plenty of evidence that children, and by extension adults of any caliber, can participate in political decision making. This is evidence that delegative democracy can work with any group, around the world.
Three years after Demeny’s proposal, the UN Convention for the Rights of the Child was ratified in 1989, conferring inalienable rights to children, including the right of free expression, free association, and peaceful assembly. This puts them closer in rights to the adults in their lives. The language of the document recognized children’s agency and codified their freedom to be active participants in their own lives and play a role in civic decisions that affect them.
Curiously, while 193 countries ratified this convention, two countries abstained, Somalia and the United States.
While Article 12 guarantees children the right to express their views in matters affecting the child, the gap between theory and reality is large. In 2009, there were 2.2 billion children under the age of 18. Only a fraction of them, those aged 16 years on if they lived in Brazil, Cuba, Indonesia or Nicaragua, had voting rights (Tremmel, 2009). While the convention serves as an important framework for any future work, there is a long way to go to ensure equity for children’s rights, and therefore accurate and consistent enfranchisement around the world. This means equity for the future, if it is implemented. Delegative democracy has an important role to play in that scenario.
In a 2011 interview with CBC Radio, Demeny reiterated his position that extending rights to children was a natural progression of the democratic project and that there should no bias against generational status. This further proves that any group should be trusted with the ability to vote, as most groups contain a large amount of people who trust each other and can make good decisions. This will lead to a pool of voters that will make the best decisions possible.
Indeed, the knowledge and experience gap argument may not only apply to the youngest of children, newborns, and toddlers. There are many who have trouble navigating the immense amount of knowledge needed to cast an informed vote.
But even in these cases, there is growing sympathy that even they be granted rights in specific circumstances. They can make good decisions, and often are more intuitive and successfully insightful than we are. These are skills that we want to better incorporate into our growing democracy. In recent years children have launched lawsuits against various levels of governments, claiming that their inaction on climate change issues is endangering their future world, further proving that some of that plurality are engaged. Courts have begun to agree with them, granting them a space to hear their arguments. We are beginning to value the wisdom of children in this sense. In the same manner that there are government policies that transfer economic resources to parents for the benefit of children. There should be similar policies that transfer political resources to them, and others. This is to reinforce the idea that a wider range of people involved in democracy, the better the decisions made.
Corruption has occurred all across the political spectrum in almost all of the countries in the world. Could we counter it by giving more weight to the future? To our children’s voices?
Human nature is not entirely composed of experts. Some people are better at some topics, than others are. In fact, the more diverse a range of life experience in a room, the better the overall decisions made. We should embrace this in our politics, rather than leave the decisions up to a small homogenous group. In a large organization, a very powerful way to actually embrace the decision-making power of the institution is to empower the people in the institution. This is what delegative democracy is about. We will empower the diverse range of life experience in an institution, therefore creating a healthier and more flexible institution.
This is the same for the voting rights of most citizens. If we are able to tell the government who we trust to make the best decisions, reflecting our real-world social networks, we will end up with significantly better government. We will only be limited by humanities own natural failings, not the individual systems failings.