Our member John Wall (Rutgers University, US) talks about his edited collection, Exploring Children's Suffrage: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Ageless Voting (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022).
Children under 18 make up a third of the world’s population. They are just as impacted by democratic policies and laws as adults, and they contribute actively to democracies in many direct and indirect ways. Despite their evident stake in democratic elections, however, children are almost universally denied the right to vote. The unquestioned international consensus is that “universal and equal” suffrage is achieved with adult-only voting rights, and that age – unlike, say, gender and race – is an appropriate reason for unilateral disenfranchisement.
Exploring Children’s Suffrage: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Ageless Voting puts this widespread assumption into question. It examines children’s suffrage – not just at 16, but at all ages – as a meaningful possibility for democratic societies. It does so by developing an interdisciplinary scholarly conversation around the history, meaning, and possibilities for all children’s rights to vote. To this end, authors explore issues such as what assumptions underlie voting exclusion by age; how democracy has changed and could be rethought again; what effects children’s enfranchisement might have on children, adults, and societies; how voting age functions intersectionally; and what ageless voting might mean in practice.
The book’s ten chapters are written by prominent researchers in childhood studies, political science, philosophy, history, economics, medicine, and law who have all engaged the issue of eliminating voting ages in their work. The purpose is to bring together what have so far been disparate inquiries, reaching sometimes different conclusions, to lay the foundation for a sustained and critical new field of children’s suffrage studies.
This volume grew out of a series of discussions among its authors, other scholars, and child and adult ageless voting activists at the Children’s Voting Colloquium. This global online organization, co-founded in 2020 by myself and US advocate Robin Chen, is a community of over a hundred researchers, activists, and policy groups that meets monthly to share scholarship and develop initiatives aimed at eliminating voting ages worldwide. It quickly became clear that the scholarship on children’s voting is complex and diverse but in need of deeper interdisciplinary engagement.
For myself, the book extends long-standing theoretical research into children’s voting rights that resulted in my 2022 book Give Children the Vote: On Democratizing Democracy. This work grows out of a larger commitment to what I and others have called childism, or the empowerment of children by critiquing social norms and structures. From this perspective, the question of children’s suffrage is a key challenge in the larger struggle against children’s historical marginalization.
Discussions among the authors made it clear that, despite almost five decades of scholarship on ageless voting, researchers often work separately not only from one another but also from their larger disciplines. In addition, a broader public conversation lacks the critical scholarly resources needed to challenge broader normative histories and overcome simplistic assumptions. As a result, we felt it was time to develop our mutually enriching exchanges into a critical interdisciplinary dialogue that could provide new bases for research, policy analysis, and activism going forward.
This volume of essays develops upon the existing conversation by both extending ongoing lines of thought and developing new ones. Its aim is to demonstrate that children’s suffrage is a vital and important field of study inviting new questions across a range of disciplines. Each of the authors in this volume takes for granted that children’s suffrage can be discussed as a meaningful possibility. The usual reasons given against ageless voting are taken seriously but also subjected to critical reflection. At the same time, chapters approach the possibility of children’s enfranchisement from a variety of disciplinary angles and come to a range of different conclusions. The volume does not offer a single solution. Rather, it presents an in-depth interdisciplinary exploration of the hard and complex issues that children’s suffrage raises for scholars and societies.
The following chapters are divided into three parts. Part I, “Theoretical Frameworks,” examines the underlying issues involved in the children’s suffrage debate, exploring questions around competence, harms and benefits, justice, and the nature of democracy. Part II, “Historical Contexts,” unpacks diverse influences on children’s suffrage arising from the past, such as other suffrage movements, de-colonizing processes, power dynamics, and changing political realities. And Part III, “Practical Considerations,” extends discussions of children’s enfranchisement into fields such as economics, law, and medicine, exploring such questions as economic consequences, legal challenges, consent, and implementation.
Part I, “Theoretical Frameworks,” begins with a chapter by the US political scientist Michael Cummings, a renowned expert in American political thought, utopian studies, and children’s politics. His chapter, “Silence is Poison: Explaining and Curing Adult ‘Apathy’,” argues that children’s equal suffrage is the necessary cure for contemporary democracies’ toxic lack of engagement and rising authoritarianism, a systemic disfunction built on citizens having been disenfranchised throughout the most formative years of their lives. This is followed by a chapter by the New Zealand political philosopher Nicholas Munn, a theorist of democratic marginalization among groups like the young, persons with disabilities, and criminals. His chapter, “How Low Can You Go? The Capacity to Vote Among Young Citizens,” unpacks exactly what constitutes the capacity to vote and suggests that it is sufficiently broad that no harm is done by opening suffrage to everyone regardless of age who wishes to participate in it. The final chapter in this part is by the US political philosopher and childhood studies scholar John Wall, a poststructuralist theorist of politics and childhoods. He argues in “The Case for Children’s Voting” that universally ageless suffrage would create stronger democracies that are more fully responsive to the people and hence better positioned to form just and healthy societies.
Part II, “Historical Contexts,” starts with a chapter by the UK historian David Runciman, a scholar of the modern practices and theories of democracy and of generational and educational divides in contemporary politics. His chapter, “The Enfranchisement of Women vs the Enfranchisement of Children,” shows how women’s and children’s suffrage, while different in many respects, raise similar questions of discrimination, paternalism, voice, and democratic inclusion. The next chapter is by the Indian childhood studies anthropologist and sociologist Anandini Dar, an expert on teen lives in India and the Indian diaspora as well as childhoods in South Asia. Her chapter, “De-Colonizing Children’s Suffrage: Engagements with Dr. B R Ambedkar’s Ideas on Democracy,” argues that the Dalit activist and political thinker Ambedkar offers resources from India’s history of democratic liberation for theorizing and de-colonizing children’s suffrage rights today. Part II ends with a chapter by two Swedish childhood studies scholars, the historian of childhood Bengt Sandin and the sociologist of children, migration, and politics Jonathan Josefsson. Their chapter, “The Reform that Never Happened: A History of Children’s Suffrage Restrictions,” examines the reasons why voting ages were not reduced in an otherwise progressive period in Sweden over the twentieth century because of a combination of institutional, policy, and political barriers.
Part III, “Practical Considerations,” begins with a chapter by the Italian economist Luigi Campiglio, an international expert in political economics, and Lorenza Alexandra Lorenzetti, an Italian economic theorist. Their chapter, “Generational Economics,” shows how an extra parent proxy vote for every child would help governments and societies develop stronger economic policies to combat poverty, support families, and promote long-term instead of short-term economic prosperity. This is followed by a chapter by the legal scholar and lawyer Cheryl Milne, an expert in Canadian constitutional law and international children’s rights. Her chapter, “Legality of Age Restrictions on Voting: A Canadian Perspective,” examines efforts in her country to lower and eliminate voting ages and explores what avenues might be used for navigating the complex legal questions involved. The final chapter is by the UK scholar of neonatal medicine Neena Modi, a leading researcher of child health and well-being. Her chapter, “A View from Paediatric Medicine: Competence, Best Interests, and Operational Pragmatism,” argues that just as pediatricians have learned to progressively engage children in medical treatment, so also could parents progressively involve children in exercising their own right to vote.
Collectively, these chapters lay a foundation for an interdisciplinary field of children’s suffrage studies. They prove that a productive and stimulating conversation can be had among philosophers, political scientists, childhood studies scholars, historians, sociologists, economists, legal scholars, and medical researchers. And if among these fields, then also more broadly among psychologists, neuroscientists, literature scholars, critical race theorists, and many others. The more democratic the discussion the better. What is more, the essays in this volume show that scholars have much to contribute to, and to learn from, growing public activism. Children’s suffrage studies is well positioned to engage with child and adult organizers and policy makers, as well as to provide public debates with theoretical, historical, economic, and other critical resources.