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Why Children Should Have a Vote

Duncan Lindsey
University of California, Los Angeles

"One by one, with astonishing rapidity, the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union crumbled before the assertion of people's power, whose common watchword was the realization of a genuinely representative and responsible democratic form of government. In the last decade of the twentieth century democracy rediscovered its optimism and universality." (Harding, 1992, p. 185).


The Condition of Children

The largest category of poor in the Unites States are children. There are more than 14 and a half million children in the United States who live in poverty, while more than 5 million children live in families with less than half the poverty line income. Too young to carry their own cause, these children often suffer out of the limelight and in silence. These figures seem implausible in a nation of such enormous wealth.

Why have we allowed such poverty to persist among such a precious resource as our children? It certainly isn't because we don't know what to do. Child welfare policies and programs that could end child poverty have been available during the last several decades. This isn't rocket science. Nor is it the cost of these policies and programs which stops us. As the Children's Defense Fund has pointed out, we could end child poverty for less than three percent of all federal spending.

There is a collective will to end child poverty and support for the expenditure required, even in a time of massive federal government budget deficits. It isn't the money that stops us. What prevents us from ending child poverty? The fundamental problem is that our political system fails to provide a mechanism that lets the interests of children to be represented. In modern democratic societies like the United States, political power derives from the vote. Those who can vote are able to assure that their needs and interests are protected. Yet, children are unable to vote.

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One could imagine the consequences for any particular group if they lost their right to vote. Their interests would depend on the good will and sympathy of others. Perhaps their rights would be protected by the courts. But in very real terms, their interests and needs would rapidly fall in importance among elected officials.

One could imagine, for example, about what would happen to seniors, if a law was passed ending the right to vote for those over 65 years of age. It wouldn't take long for the Social Security System to be raided. Seniors would find Medicare and Medicaid being gutted. The condition for senior citizens would rapidly decline. In no time at all, seniors might find themselves in the same situation as children. Seniors would lose their political power and become dependent on the good will and sympathy of others who have their own compelling interests.

One in five children in North America live in poverty. The enormous wealth of these countries makes this fact almost incomprehensible. Nevertheless, children have seen their needs placed at the back of the national agenda. Several years ago all of the major political parties in Canada agreed to an idea called Canada 2000. Accordingly, the goal was to unite and work together in a non-partisan basis so that by the year 2000 poverty among children would be eliminated. To date, very little action has followed these words. The goal was a noble gesture that has failed to produce any real programs or policies. As with so many other pronouncements on behalf of children, they end up, over the long haul, to be empty promises. Too many other concerns surface that have more powerful voting blocks and constituencies behind them. Lacking political power, the concerns of children are set to the side. If we ever hope to end widespread poverty among children, then we need to think about ways to insure that the interests and needs of children are represented. We need to think what, until now, has been unthinkable.

Until children have representation in the democratic political system, their needs will be neglected. Progress toward gaining children the right to representation will take time. Efforts to lower the voting age will require a constitutional amendment in the United States. However, until we recognize the centrality of the child's right to vote, progress will be episodic and short lived.

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Enfranchising Children

We need to consider giving children the right to vote at age 16 (or even 14 after they have developed the required formal thought processes) or the right to assign their proxy. Obviously before they develop the cognitive skills and emotional maturity necessary for making difficult political judgments, children cannot be expected to vote. Perhaps these children should have their right to vote exercised by proxy. We could assign their proxy to their principal care giver. If children were given the franchise, then their interests and needs would receive attention equal to other groups in democratic society. To restore our obligation to children will require imaginative solutions that today seem unthinkable. It wasn't that many years ago when blacks were denied to right to vote. Women received the franchise with the 19th Amendment in 1920. Perhaps we can experiment with giving children the right to vote. Until children have the right to vote, we may simply continue a cycle of concern and neglect of children's issues that has failed to produce substantial progress.

It might be argued that providing women with the right to vote has not really led to fundamental changes or improvements for women. Unquestionably, progress for women has been too slow. But it would be hard to imagine what the situation of women would have been (or would become) without the right to vote. It would be unthinkable to even imagine a situation where women were denied the right to vote.

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Government establishes the rules the community will abide by in deciding how resources (such as the Gross Domestic Product) will be distributed. In a society where special interest politics shape governmental interests, those groups able to fund the campaigns of elected officials will see their interests protected and legislation which is favorable to protecting and improving their interests enacted. Likewise, those groups who are unable to make substantial contributions to the campaigns of elected officials will see their interests go unprotected. Further, those groups, such as the poor, who have historically recorded low voter turnout will be especially vulnerable. And most of all, those who do not vote (i.e., children) are unlikely to have their interests protected and will likely fare poorly in competition with others in the arena of political decision-making.

We can lay the foundation for ending widespread poverty among children only by empowering the children themselves. This will require giving children the right to representation. The mechanism for achieving this representation will require creative and innovative problem solving, but we can do it. What we need to do is give up some of our own power so that children can have what we already enjoy. It won't cost us any money. It won't add to the federal deficit. But it will add to the political and moral wealth of the nation. We ought to be able to enter the next millennium with our children having equal representation in our political institutions.

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Children's Defense Fund. (1991). The state of America's children 1991. Washington, DC: Author.
Inhelder, B., & Piaget, J. (1958). The growth of logical thinking from childhood to adolescence. New York: Basic Books.
Harding, N. (1992). The Marxist-Leninist detour. In J. Dunn (Ed.), Democracy: The unfinished journey 508BC to AD1993 (pp. 155-187). New York: Oxford University Press.
Lindsey, D. (1994). The welfare of children. New York: Oxford University Press.
Peel, E.A. (1971). The nature of adolescent judgment. New York: Wiley.

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