Children’s Rights and Voting Age Discrimination
International and national laws rarely refer explicitly to age discrimination, and even when they do, they typically focus on age discrimination against the elderly, not the young. Even the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), one of whose foundational principles in article 2 is prohibition against discrimination, refers to a long list of factors such as race, ethnicity, sex, and disability, but not age, except potentially under “other status.” This essay takes up two lines of thought stemming from this situation. First, it explores what it means for children and young people to be discriminated against as children by a legally normative adultism. And second, it tests this problem against the issue of children’s right to vote, that is, their fundamental right to participate in democratically determining rights. I argue that discrimination against children needs to be met with a systemically childist critique that can illuminate societal adultism and reimagine rights, such as the right to vote, beyond a regime of biases around age.
The invisibility of age as a discriminatory factor for the young represents a kind of adultism or patriarchy with deep roots in social and legal history. The term adultism has been in use since 1903 when the educator Patterson DuBois coined it to refer to the ways that children’s development is hindered by undue impositions of adult points of view. Since the 1990s, the term has come to signify, not just individual actions, but systemic normative biases across societies. Some refer to this type of discrimination against the young as an inherited form of social “prejudice” similar to racism and sexism. Others speak of adultism as a type of political “oppression” that uses structures of power to impose silence and domination over children’s lives. And others still use the term adultism in a poststructuralist sense to mean young people’s epistemological “marginalization” or consignment to social invisibility (Moosa-Mitha 2005, Wall 2010). What these notions of adultism hold in common is the idea that societies need to be examined for the ways they discriminate against children as children.
If discrimination against the young has such profound normative and historical roots, an adequate response must be critical, systemic, and political. To this end, I and others have developed the theoretical concept of “childism,” in analogy to critical perspectives like feminism, decolonialism, antiracism, and posthumanism. (Others, like Young-Breuhl, have used the word childism differently as another word for adultism). As I define it, childism is a critical lens for deconstructing adultism across research and societies and reconstructing more age-inclusive scholarly and social imaginations. Feminism addresses gender discrimination by undoing patriarchal assumptions and developing gender-inclusive social norms. Decolonialism unpacks the continuing domination of the global north and empowers epistemologies arising from the grassroots global south. Likewise, childism fights children’s systemic discrimination by empowering the otherwise marginalized lived experiences of children and young people in order to transform shared normative structures for all.
The right to vote is a central and continuing concern in anti-discrimination movements around gender, race, ethnicity, and more. But less well known is that it has also and more recently arisen as a concern for the third of humanity who are children and youth under the age of eighteen. Calls have been made to eliminate all voting age discrimination since at least the 1970s. But the movement gained steam in the 1990s when child-led groups such as KRÄTZÄ, Foundation for the Rights of Future Generations, Association for Children’s Suffrage, National Youth Rights Association, and We Want the Vote started campaigning for ageless voting rights by organizing, pressuring representatives, and suing in courts. This movement has now been joined by adult-led groups such as Amnesty International UK, Freechild Institute, Children’s Voice Association, YouthLaw Aotearoa, Children’s Rights International Network, and most recently a global organization that I co-founded called the Children’s Voting Colloquium. In recent years, there has been a gradual increase in media attention to the issue as well, in Ted Talks, op-eds, white papers, blogs, and the like.
In the academy, the argument for ageless voting—now being made across disciplines such as law, political science, philosophy, childhood studies, history, economics, and pediatrics—is essentially two-fold. First, children’s exclusion from suffrage on grounds of incompetence is discriminatory, as it applies a false double standard to which adults are not held. Any voting age requirement is both under- and over-determinative, excluding some capable and including some not capable (or not as capable). Legal scholar Samantha Godwin claims that denying children the right to vote violates U.S. antidiscrimination law by failing a rigorous application of established equal protection jurisprudence. Legal scholars Robert Goodin and Joanne Lau show that child voters would not reduce but, on the contrary, add to the pool of democratic competence by increasing the range of voting perspectives. Political philosopher Claudio López-Guerra argues that the franchise capacity belongs to children as much as to adults if properly understood as the ability to experience the benefits of enfranchisement and the harms of disenfranchisement. My own argument has been that the most democratic definition of voting competence is neither literacy, knowledge of government processes, nor maturity, but rather the ability to participate in political discourse—something evidently possessed by children of most ages participating, for example, in climate movements, Black Lives Matter marches, gun legislation suits, religious freedom demonstrations, abortion campaigns, queer rights protests, labor unions, children’s parliaments, and a great deal more.
Second, the argument is made that ageless voting would systematically benefit children, adults, societies, and democracies. The idea here is that, compared to the alternatives, democracy works. Put differently, there is a government interest in being pressured by all instead of just a selection of a society’s diverse citizens. Some fear that children’s voting would adultify children, open them to manipulation, or lead to further harmful children’s rights such as to marry and drive. But scholars have argued, on the contrary, that children and youth would finally gain equal consideration in the minds of representatives. Adults who have or work with children would enjoy generally greater government support. Governments would have to think about environmental sustainability, health care, and economics in the longer-term. And citizens no longer being taught in their early years that their voices do not count would likely grow up to be less disengaged and more resistant to authoritarian appeals. As with all prior suffrage movements, the enfranchisement of children would systematically benefit everyone.
These nondiscrimination claims find at least implicit support in international law. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states in article 21.3 that “the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage.” The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) asserts in article 25 that “Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity … [t]o vote and to be elected at genuine period elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage.” And the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)—while arguably an attempt to remove rather than include children from international law—nevertheless supports in article 12 children’s “right to express [their] views freely in all matters affecting the child,” which clearly includes politics. Perhaps even more forcefully, CRC article 13 requires that “[t]he child shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information of all kinds,” with restrictions “only” when it comes to the rights of others and public order, which suggests the right to impart one’s views via voting and without regard to age. Indeed, the CRC Committee has already taken steps in this direction by recommending lowering the voting age in countries like Germany to sixteen. The human rights regime of international law to which the U.N. has been dedicated since the mid-twentieth century clearly supports the universal and equal democratization of societies and with the least possible discrimination according to age.
How these theoretical and legal implications are translated into national law is another matter. In my own country, the United States, the gradual expansion of suffrage to landowners, the poor, racial minorities, women, and eighteen-to-twenty-one-year-olds has been accomplished through a combination of revised state law protections and constitutional amendments. The U.S. Supreme Court held in Dunn v Blumstein that voting rights are a “fundamental interest” that therefore must be subject to “strict scrutiny by the courts”; and that “the U.S. government entity limiting voting rights must [therefore] carry the burden to justify the infringement.” However, no such government justification has ever (to my knowledge) been provided for denying voting rights to minors. The Twenty-Sixth Amendment protects the vote for citizens eighteen and older without necessarily denying it to those who are younger. Most importantly, the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees “any person within [a state’s] jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” It could be argued that citizens under eighteen in the United States are currently discriminated against by being denied their fundamental interest in the right to vote, an interest to which they are entitled as equal citizens under the law and in which government has a vital stake in its efforts to represent and respond to the will of the people.
[*] John Wall is Professor of Philosophy, Religion, and Childhood Studies, and Director of the Childism Institute, at Rutgers University Camden, U.S. He is a theoretical ethicist who works at the intersection of political philosophy, poststructuralism, and children’s rights. His recent publications include Give Children the Vote: On Democratizing Democracy (2022), Children’s Rights: Today’s Global Challenge (2016), Ethics in Light of Childhood (2010), and the edited volumes Exploring Children’s Suffrage: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Ageless Voting (2023), The Bloomsbury Handbook of Theories in Childhood Studies (2023), and Children and Armed Conflict (2011). He is also co-founder of the global online research and advocacy organization called the Children’s Voting Colloquium.
 Convention on the Rights of the Child, Nov. 20, 1989, 1577 U.N.T.S. 3.
 Jocelyn Gregoire and Christin Jungers, The Counsellor’s Companion: What Every Beginning Counselor Needs to Know (2007); Elisabeth Young-Bruehl. Childism: Confronting Prejudice Against Children (2011).
 Mehmoona Moosa-Mitha, A Difference-Centered Alternative to Theorization of Children’s Citizenship Rights, 9 Citizenship Stud. 375 (2005); John Wall, Ethics in Light of Childhood (2010).
 Elisabeth Young-Bruehl. Childism: Confronting Prejudice Against Children (2011).
 John Wall, From Childhood Studies to Childism: Reconstructing the Scholarly and Social Imaginations, 17.7 Child.’s Geographies 1 (2019).
 John Wall, Introduction, in Exploring Children’s Suffrage (John Wall ed., forthcoming 2023).
 Robert Goodin and Joanne Lau, Enfranchising Incompetents: Suretyship and the Joint Authorship of Laws, 24 Ratio 154 (2011).
 Claudio López-Guerra, Democracy and Disenfranchisement: The Morality of Electoral Exclusions (2014).
 Jakob Hinze, Rejuvenating Democracy: Age, Knowledge, and the Right to Vote (2020) (Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Philosophy, University of St. Andrews); Maura Priest, Why Children Should Be Allowed to Vote, 30 Pub. Aff. Q. 215 (2016).
 John Wall, Give Children the Vote: On Democratizing Democracy (2022).
 Luigi Campiglio, Children’s Right to Vote: The Missing Link in Modern Democracies, 12 Soc. Stud. of Child. and Youth 221 (2009); Neena Modi. 2018. A Radical Proposal: To Promote Children’s Wellbeing Give Them the Vote, BMJ 361 (2018), available at https://www.bmj.com/content/361/bmj.k1862 [https://perma.cc/NF63-5U6T].
 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, GA Res 217A, UNGAOR, UN Doc A/810 (Dec. 9, 1948).
 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Dec. 16, 1966, 999 U.N.T.S. 171.
 Afua Twum-Danso Imoh and Samuel Okyere, Towards a More Holistic Understanding of Children’s Participation: Foregrounding the Experiences of Children in Ghana and Nigeria, 112 Child. and Youth Serv.’s Rev. 1 (2020).
 Convention on the Rights of the Child, Nov. 20, 1989, 1577 U.N.T.S. 3.
 Daniella Zlotnik, The Future of Adolescents’ Right to Vote and Political Participation, Leiden Law Blog (Jul. 3, 2017), leidenlawblog.nl/category/private-law.
 Dunn v. Blumstein, 405 U.S. 330 (1972).
 U.S. Const. amend. XXVI.