Should we really bar young people from voting?

When the UK goes to the polls in May, some 15 million people—more than the combined population of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—won’t be able to vote since they will be under 18. Is that really defensible?

Why put an age restriction on voting? Age in itself is not politically relevant, of course. Rather, age stands as a proxy for something else, namely competence. So, if we want to defend an age restriction on voting, we have to say that most people under the relevant age are not competent to choose well.

But a moment’s thought tells us that age is too crude a measure of competency. Plenty of young people are competent and plenty of old people are incompetent. That’s why, if you take competency considerations seriously, you’re going to want to ban incompetent people generally from voting—not just young ones.

In fact, that idea is not without precedence. John Stuart Mill, the founder of modern liberalism, famously argued that only people who can read and write and who know some basic arithmetic, history and politics, should be allowed to vote. Additionally, educated citizens should get several votes, on account of ‘mental superiority’.

More recently, Jason Brennan has defended a system that would ‘restrict electoral power to citizens who can demonstrate competence’. How come? Because we all have certain rights, and one of them is ‘not to be subject to high stakes decisions made by incompetent and morally unreasonable people’.

All of this means that, as soon as we try to defend an age restriction on voting, and notice that we have to do so with reference to competency, we land in a dilemma:

Either we embrace the idea that people can be denied a vote if incompetent, and restrict the franchise accordingly—for young and old alike; or we reject that idea, and with it also any age restriction on voting.

Since we have to either accept or deny the idea of denying incompetent people the vote, we have to go for one of the two options. But neither option is particularly appealing—that’s what makes it a dilemma. So which one is least unappealing?

Consider the first option, where we bar incompetent people generally from voting. As already noted, we would need a more discriminating measure of competency than age. We would most likely need some form of test to determine who is and who is not competent to vote. Such a test would be rife for abuse along racial and economic dimensions, as were the case with the literacy tests that were part of the voter registration process in the American South prior to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

That’s why the second option of not having competency be a factor in voting seems less unappealing. If we go for that option, we would not impose any age restriction on voting—including a lowered one—since such a restriction would have to be motivated with reference to competency. There might of course be practical obstacles that will prevent some people from voting, such as the very young. But in the absence of any age restriction, a five-year-old, say, would be able to vote if they wish.

Is that a disconcerting thought? Perhaps, but the relevant question is whether it’s more disconcerting than the alternative, as captured by the first option above. I don’t think it is. The mass-mobilisation of infant voters seems less scary—and less probable—than the type of abuse invited by any attempt to implement a measure of political competency with the power to bar certain people from voting.

If that’s right, rejecting the idea that incompetent people can be denied the vote, and with it any age restriction on voting, seems the less unappealing option. And that’s why putting an age restriction—any age restriction—on voting isn’t defensible.

Kristoffer Ahlstrom-Vij