Recently, I’ve been reading Escape from Childhood by John Holt. It’s considered his most radical book, and indeed, to the contemporary ear, his proposals sound a bit wacky. His basic proposal is “that the rights, privileges, duties, responsibilities of adult citizens be made available to any young person, of whatever age, who wants to make use of them…”
Holt includes among these the right to vote. It was last week, right around the Fourth of July, when I was reading Holt’s arguments about why children should be allowed to vote, that this comedy video began circulating on my social media accounts:
All who posted it or told me about it found it funny, but also sad. Of course for the purposes of the video the interviewer was seeking out Americans who would happily make fools of themselves on camera, and of course not all Americans are as ignorant as those portrayed in the video, but it reminded me of something Holt says in his book: “We have learned time after time that most people (in spite of their schooling) do not even recognize the Declaration of Independence or the Bill of Rights when they are typed out on ordinary paper and shown to them. When they are asked to sign these statements, the most fundamental documents of our society and supposedly the foundation of our political system, about nine out of ten people refuse, calling them radical, subversive, communist…” Holt, writing in the 1970’s, goes on to give other examples remarkably similar to those portrayed in the 2015 comedy video.
It doesn’t matter how much or how little anyone knows about our government, or the candidates running for office. Simply by virtue of being 18 or older, we enjoy the right to vote. As Holt says, “No amount of ignorance, misinformation, or outright delusion will bar an adult from voting.”
Is 18 not an arbitrary marker? It is legal adult age in our society, true, but other rights are conferred or denied according to older or younger ages, such as the right to drive a motor vehicle, or the right to drink alcohol.
I have known many children who are just as competent to vote, and decidedly more excited about it, than many adults. In 2008, the day after one of the Democratic debates, I had two ten-year-olds in the backseat of my car. Both had watched all or part of the debate, and one asked the other who she supported, adding, “I’m for Obama, because I want kids in the White House.” The other child, who happened to be my daughter, responded that next time there was an election she didn’t want to know who her parents were supporting, in order to be able to make up her own mind.
Pretty sophisticated stuff for 10-year-olds. Or is it? It’s human nature, and sensible, to support the candidate you feel would best respond to your particular issues, so why wouldn’t a kid want a president that would be tuned into the needs and issues of young people? My daughter’s comment reflects her own self-awareness about the fact that adults she respects are influential, but that she has her own mind, too.
I have another child who developed a keen interest in politics as a young teenager. Although she phone banked and canvassed for several of her chosen candidates, she could not vote for them. She was such a reliable member of the team that she was even asked to work as a poll watcher on several election days. She was respected enough to be selected to ensure voting procedures were properly followed, and still, she could not vote.
What if allowing kids to vote simply gave their parents extra votes, as some fear? The anecdote about the 10-year-olds I related is one example that shows that wouldn’t necessarily be true, but even if it were true, why would the influence suddenly wear off at age 18? And don’t spouses in many cases vote alike, and does that diminish the validity of either vote?
Holt also argues that denying the young the right to vote is unjust because in the long run, they will be the most affected by government policies and decisions. The young, he says, “…will have to live longer with the consequences of what we do and any mistakes we make.” They are among the biggest stakeholders, yet they are not allowed a voice.
When it comes to voting, I’m with Holt. I see no reason why young people should be denied the right to participate in our democracy. This might also give us a chance of developing a less apathetic electorate, something which we sorely need. As Holt says, “Merely knowing they could vote if they wanted, or knowing people of their own age who voted, would do more to interest and inform the young about the society around them than anything, however ‘relevant,’ we could put in the curriculum or do in the school.”
Holt acknowledges that if the right to vote is given to the young, it would likely happen in increments. He encourages young people struggling to be granted rights in their schools to change their focus. “Forget students’ rights and get yourselves the rights of citizens. Get the vote, and when you have it, get it for those younger than you are.”
Should any such young people seek to do that, they’ll have at least one adult in their corner.