votes for children

Never has a society so mortgaged the future of generations to come for its own pleasure. It’s time to give those generations a voice—and raise democracy to new heights in the process–before it’s too late….

We call B.S.

Emma Gonzalez, 17, Parkland, FL

Rising sea levels, shrinking supplies of fresh water and mineral resources. Exploding debt and deficits. Ever-widening inequalities of every kind. Antibiotic-resistant superbugs, global pandemics, resurrected Paleolithic microbes, wave after wave of tropical pests and pathogens on the march.  Demographic overhangs and worldwide demagoguery. Mass extinctions and monoculture tinderboxes, runaway AI, biotech, nanotech, asymmetric warfare and the spread of weapons of mass destruction. Unprecedented levels of criminality and corruption. More fires, bigger storms, deeper droughts, particulate clouds and plastic islands the size of small continents, growing like cancers, growth itself as cancer. Mass famines and perpetual climate wars, a world of refugees. Heck, we’ve probably even made an asteroid strike more likely, by gutting basic research to pay for more tax cuts for the wealthy.

This is the world we are passing on to our children and grandchildren; this is what they see when they peer through the glass of time. Could even a worldwide conspiracy of toddlers create a bigger tsunami of ghastly? Kids as young as twelve have been tried as adults, but they cannot vote. Apparently there aren’t enough kids sufficiently depraved by that age to be given the rights and responsibilities of adults, and that does seem to be the way to look at it, in light of the litany above. Only grownups are twisted enough to cast ballots. Who are we kidding?

More important, what are we missing?

Possibly not only the last best chance to save democracy (thanks to all the above, more than a quarter of millennials and younger no longer believe in it, and they will all be ‘voting’ soon) but to usher in a new golden age for democratic ideals as they never were, not to mention put us back in the forefront of democracy where the rest of the world wants and needs us to be, against the rising tide of autocracy.

Let us explain, as we gently and not so gently demolish all the most well-established reflex arcs that have been firing off to tell kids no. Because we said so.  As it turns out, as is so often the case, the process of addressing and accommodating these concerns, rather than just sweeping them aside before the clear righteousness and moral rightness of the idea, righteous and right though indeed it is, only strengthens and broadens the power of the concept.

Kids don’t know anything

The boys on the left now say they were ‘just kidding,’ but there are plenty more of all these shirts and more out there. None of them worn by kids–these are all strictly ‘grown-up’ sentiments…

We rest our case.

Seriously, as often as we’ve seen adult-written hand-wringings bemoaning the state of children’s civic knowledge, adults have been quietly compiling a record that gets only more appalling the further removed from graduation they are. Let’s stipulate kids don’t know what they should. But in the last five years, thanks to the Civics Education Initiative, 17 states and counting have passed laws requiring all students to take tests drawing on the same base of questions that make up the exam immigrants must pass to become US citizens, and eight require passing it for graduation. A test that any immigrant can tell you most adult Americans would bomb like a drone.

Increasingly school systems are setting the foundational coursework in civics in middle school, with leading edge programs like Our American Voice reaching down to the elementary grades, as educators conclude that you literally can’t start to inculcate these values early enough, and that young children are a lot more capable of absorbing them down to the red/blue marrow than was formerly believed. Little known fact: the original purpose of American public education was not to “prepare the workforce,” it was to prepare young Americans to become lifelong contributors to civic society, to become American citizens. But in recent years, as corporate America has imposed its Race To The Bottom expectations on American schools, civics has been shunted aside for math, science, and language arts, because thinking, questioning citizens are not of the corporate variety.  

Imagine how all that changes if the groundwork that many states have already laid is turned into a basis for the right to vote. We already know from research that where allowed, kids under 18 register and vote at significantly higher rates than their older peers. Consider the revolutionary possibilities for the future of the body politic if those opportunities are expanded:

  • What state, what district, what school is not going to want to teach civics as best it can with potential voters and votes at stake, right now?
  • What parents are not going to want to help their children prepare for these exams, and likely themselves learn much of what they’d forgotten, or never knew, about what it means to be an American in the process?  
  • How long would it be before kids were competing for civics prizes like they do in science fairs, debate clubs, and math olympiads; how long before knowing your country and how to make it better became a status symbol, instead of a target for cynical, “those who can’t do, go into politics” corporate-driven derision?
  • How long would it take before voting registration displaced drivers licenses as youth’s most anticipated rite of passage (particularly as the proportion of kids who are psyched about motor vehicle operation, like Baker here, drives off the proverbial cliff)?  
  • How much might all of this be magnified if there were no lower limit on what age you could take and pass the test? Wouldn’t it be refreshing, not to mention bracing and wonderful, to turn the black ops of helicopter parenting to good use for once?

Kids aren’t capable of critical thinking

Note: This chart relies on data generated pre-QAnon. But we did (finally) find someone on the left to illustrate what a momentary glitch in political executive function looks like. 

Are we seriously going to argue that kids are less “mentally competent” than any number of Americans suffering from various forms of cognitive decline (not all of them elderly, by a long shot)?  In fact, as shown in the chart above, neuropsychologists have found the average 9-10 year old’s executive function is equal to adults 40-49, and better than every older age group that’s pulling the lever for decisions which will likely never affect them, while we deny the franchise to those who will have to live with the consequences. Isn’t this just another form of taxation without representation?  

But OK, we’ll play along, because thanks to the tech revolution, higher order learning & skills aren’t much of a barrier. There’s a huge body of research, for example, showing that games and other interactives can not only be effectively used to measure critical thinking, executive function, even creativity, but can generate these qualities as well, and our educational systems have been laying the groundwork to deploy these capabilities for years. In fact, this has been the ultimate goal of the online testing movement led by PARRC and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, now joined by competitors like AIR and ETS

We won’t snowflake you on this–there have been challenges in realizing this vision, but chief among them have been factors that need not apply here, such as the need to administer tests on multiple subjects to every school in the state, on the same date, at the same time, using school networks that are often so weak that we’ve seen low-tech games being played by twenty kids in a computer lab take them down. The tribulations in getting just these basics right have, in turn, prevented these consortia and companies from getting much beyond converting bubble sheets to their online equivalent.  But there’s no need for that to stop us, focused as we would be on assessing just one thing in a DMV-like environment (which, come to think of it, could actually be the DMV itself, resulting in automatic voter registration for everyone who passes the test).

Could kids sign up for test prep courses or otherwise game the system?  Seems highly unlikely, given the huge number of permutations available within a full graphic, animated, online testing system–there are reasons why they’re called “game cheats” rather than “ways to cheat the game”–and would it really speak ill of the initiative if there were a significant number of kids so motivated by it that they’d go to these lengths to “beat it?”

Could the test–any test–run afoul of the 24th amendment, which prohibits governments from using poll taxes, literacy tests, and the like to disenfranchise potential voters? Only if we were on the verge of passing a constitutional amendment guaranteeing children under 18 the right to vote, which sounds like another “one of them good problems” to have. Especially when its solution is to deliver on the foundational promise of equal opportunity for all even conservatives profess to support, or at least providing the first foothold for that commitment, via the subject for which public schools were created in the first place.

Finally, there’s the million bitcoin question, of course: what would be on the exam, and how would that be determined?  We’ve taken a broad stab at what should be tested and how in the table below.  We hope it looks daunting, like a gauntlet very few adults could make it through, in part because we’re confident kids can, hopefully dragging their parents along into 21st century citizenship with them, and in part because we want to be realistic about what’s possible politically.  What we know about every group that’s gotten suffrage in this country to date, whether African-Americans, women, Native Americans, 18 year olds–is that they all have a long history–up to the present day–of having to show they’re twice as good or better than the dominant ethnic age group and gender.  We have no reason to think it will be any different for children, the digital natives who, to quote Baker, “learn more online in a year than [they] learn in school in eight.”

General civic and relevant US history knowledgeUS citizenship exam, plus state & national level K-12 civics exams, plus items generated from state history standards in applicant's own state, plus a balanced mix of standards from other red and blue states. Test items here and throughout would be as multimedia as practiable, b/c that's the world they--and we--live in nowKids would show not only that they'd pass the test all immigrants take, but a more thorough knowledge than most adults of the history of the country and the state they live in.
Executive functionRandomized video game-style scenarios involving decision-making in novel situationsGame scenarios used would not necessarily have much if anything to do with politics. Much research has already proven that digital games improve executive function
Critical thinkingItems drawn from or based on critical thinking assessments developed by PARRC, Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, ETS, AIR et alVery large db would be developed/ deployed, and test prep companies retained as white hat advisors for all categories to minimize possibility of test prep, insure authenticity
Media literacyQuestions would mainly involve putting randomized, unique pieces of real content in front of the applicants, tracking (and scoring) where and what they click, then asking their views on veracity of original item, its strengths and weaknesses, guided by existing media literacy curricula and assessmentsOpen question: do we time this section or not? Do we want to reward speed b/c that's what's realistic in modern life, or thoroughness because that's a/the habit we want to inculcate before conclusions are drawn?
Scientific & statistical literacyQuestions drawn from existing state and national subject assessments (K-12, GRE) in these areasRequired science knowledge would be limited to scientific method and areas where science intersects with public policy (w/test items vetted by both sides of the political spectrum); statistical literacy focused on critical understanding of ways research of all types are typically presented in the media
Topical knowledgeQuestions testing fundamental knowledge about the top 10 issues of the day (top 10 determined by poll of polls, e.g. 538) Top 10 would be updated regularly to be current and minimize test prep; questions and answers would be unanimously vetted by liberals, moderates, and conservatives; kids would have to show familiarity with points made by both "sides" (a "must-pass"--they can't just live in echo chambers)
Civic actionE-portfolio of community activities undertaken by the candidate, w/ proof of participation required; effective participation in new media organizing activities would need to be demonstrated as wellNatural language software would parse portfolios; humans, citizens drawn from both sides would unanimously pass/fail each candidate; expert systems used as model for scalability
Other categories? Tell us in comments belowWe'll be adding to editing this table in response to your feedback

Are there categories of information or skill we’re missing? Better ways you can think of to test the ones we’ve got? Should kids not only have to pass the assessment as a whole, but ace every section of it as well? Let us know in comments below, and/or sign up to partner with us on our Votes For Children initiative

It’s just a ploy to create more Democrats

And whose fault is that? Seriously. What kid doesn’t love the idea of freedom and liberty? What child doesn’t dream of starting something from the ground up that ends with making reign?  Who, of any age, is interested in having bureaucrats tell them what to do? If boys and girls had the right to vote, do you think their parents would be shy about letting them know that the taxman is the reason they can’t have that new toy, outfit, or videogame? #TRUENEWS: If Republicans had stayed true to their principles and values, rather than selling out, repeatedly, to an unholy alliance of crony capitalists and religious zealots, they’d have a pretty compelling story and message to share with America’s youth. Perhaps an injection of child voters is just what the Ph.D. ordered to return the grand old party to its roots.

Tees for the truly mature

In addition, it must be observed that the real reason the elephant in the room is missing and endangered is particularly inexcusable. There’s really only one issue that turns large numbers of kids in Democrats’ direction, and does so because it wraps all of their ethics, emotions, and self-interest into one heat-seeking package: the environment. It even has racial justice in its firmament. By what level of political malpractice have Repubs allowed this to happen? By definition–literally–conservation is conservative. Who founded the National Parks? A Republican, Teddy Roosevelt. Who started the EPA and signed the Clean Air and Water Acts?  A Republican (Richard Nixon!). A Republican created the first fully market-based solution to an environmental problem–George HW Bush’s cap and trade system–and it was good, wiping out what seemed to be an intractable problem (acid rain) in three years, faster than any measure had ever solved any other environmental problem. His son, George W, declared himself “the environmental president” and made his home state of Texas the nation’s leader in wind energy production. Republican leader John McCain led the charge on climate change in the Senate for years. And the party’s patron saint, Ronald Reagan, declared that “the environment should not be a partisan issue,” developing market-based approaches that were quietly highly effective in reducing air and water pollution.

We understand the problem for the idiologues–for some reason, our planet doesn’t recognize state borders, which makes it a thorn in the side of states rights purists, but figure it out.  As for how the “party of Lincoln” ended up on the wrong side of racial justice, where to begin? All we know is that the strong winds we’ve been experiencing lately could be caused by the likes of Jack Kemp, Mark Hatfield, John Chaffee, Jacob Javits, Edward Brooke, Lowell Weicker, Nelson Rockefeller, Chuck Percy, Margaret Chase Smith, Jim Jeffords, Olympia Snowe, Charles Mathias, John Anderson, Everett Dirksen, John Lindsay, Gerald Ford, Lee Dreyfus, Tom Ridge, John Heinz, Christine Todd Whitman, William Cohen, Howard Baker, Colin Powell, et al shaking their heads mournfully at what has become of their GOP.

Oh, and by the way, who says kids are going to vote for either party, rather than start their own, as kids have been doing in every other domain for generations? Or that they’ll be willing to settle for the narrow tweedledeedum range of “realistic,” sound-bite solutions that seem wholly inadequate to the challenges we face?

They’ll just vote like their parents tell them to

They say it’s no longer necessary to invent a time machine, because most of us already own one: it’s called a car. Just drive around for a bit and sure enough, pretty soon you’ll find yourself passing from one century into another, and another. The year 2016 sure proved to be a good one for us to step into our wayback devices. With everything they knew about the Republican nominee, more than half of white women nevertheless voted for him. Pardon the outside observer for thinking that an awful lot of adult Americans vote the way “daddy” tells them to. (Ed note: apparently 55% of white women voted for Trump again in 20201)

But rather than take the easy lay-up (again), let’s answer this objection with a question: so what?  In our society today, the wealthy enjoy voting power far beyond their actual numbers because they have more money and everything it can buy than everyone else. But one thing they don’t have more of is children, not only in absolute numbers, but relative numbers as well. What’s wrong with reeling our system back from plutocracy towards the democratic ideal by allowing the middle and working classes to ‘use’ their children to level the proverbial playing field? Shouldn’t a democracy care more about the rights of people to vote than currency?

If they’re old enough to kick the government’s a**… clockwise from top left: Ally Bain; Barbara Rose Johns; Claudette Colvin; the “Children’s Crusades” that were critical turning points in the labor and civil rights movements; the “Parkland kids” of Marjory Stoneman High; and the “Climate Change Kids.” More on each, and more, below…

Beyond this, there’s another way that kids can provide a democratic counterweight to the stranglehold of the wealthy, giving the lie of history, in the process, to the unearned paternalism and condescension implicit in the objection. While too often we “grown-ups” feel compelled to cower behind our mortgages, our jobs, our families, our responsibilities and obligations, kids have no such compunctions. Like one-percenters with the FU resources and protection necessary to focus on, and demand, everything they want from government, kids are fearless.

It was two teenagers, for example, Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith, who were the first to be arrested in Birmingham for not giving up their bus seats, nine months before Rosa Parks. And those same teens agreed to be part of the subsequent lawsuit that went to the Supreme Court and overturned segregation laws all over the South “when most adults did not have the courage to do so.”  Brown v Board of Education came out of a school strike organized by sixteenyear-old Barbara Johns.  Fourteen-year-old Ally Bain revolutionized public restroom access across the country. 

The National Rifle Association had built decades of invincibility when the “Parkland kids” of Marjory Stoneman High School emerged from tragedy and loss to push passage of 67 bipartisan new gun laws in 26 states+DC in their first year of activism alone. The youngest of 20 children and teens who sued the federal government for unconstitutional dereliction of ecological duty was eight; he’s now 13 as their fight continues in the courts, with more wins than losses. Greta Thunberg, now considered a world leader in the fight against climate change, led her first significant action at the age of 15 (and no, she wasn’t put up to it by her parents). Malala Yousafzai began fighting for women’s rights in her native Pakistan at the age of 11; by the age of 15, she’d already registered seismically enough for Taliban soldiers to shoot and nearly kill her; by age 17, she was the youngest Nobel laureate in history.  The list goes on and on and all the way back to Joan of Arc (17) and beyond.  Sure, they all had help from adults–where else do we expect them to turn when we deny them a voice in governing?

It’s just a pointless pipe dream–it’ll never happen

One of America’s greatest secret weapons is one of the most beloved by conservatives: federalism. The broad powers given to the states the federal government is constitutionally prohibited from abridging have long created the perfect complement, even mirror image, to private sector free markets, “laboratories of democracy” that have long made our country creatively the envy of others around the globe. There are a lot of federal vines, both official and unofficial, that need to be hacked away so the states can perform this role the way they once did (something we’ll be writing more about soon), but if you’re trying and failing to picture ⅔ majorities of both houses and three quarters of the states getting behind what we’re talking about, rub your eyes.

And they’ll never run their own schools either…

Would it surprise you to learn that nineteen states gave women the right to vote before the 19th amendment made it a constitutional mandate? Would it surprise you to learn the first state to do so was Wyoming, fifty years earlier? That the next three were Utah, Colorado, and Idaho, and the rest included Arizona, Kansas, Alaska, North Dakota, Indiana, Nebraska, Arkansas, South Dakota, and Oklahoma? All this starting more than a century before the first Web browser was available.

There’s already a movement backed by a who’s who of K-12 civics organizations to get 16year-olds the right to vote in local elections, and maybe we need to go small to go even bigger, too–start municipal, targeting cities and towns with the potential for the biggest impact per level of capital expended, political and fiscal, and let the Net do the rest.  We’ve created a table of the characteristics we think such municipalities will have to which we hope you’ll add both candidates and any qualities you think promising that we might have missed.  Consider it a kickoff to the more comprehensive Votes For Children initiative we hope you’ll work with us to develop.

Finally, as we lean in on this end of the arc of justice, let’s do whatever we can to insure the already eligible voters most likely to ‘get it’–the millennials and GenZers–keep punching their weight, and then some, at the ballot box like they did in 2018, when they turned dozens of races.  Where and how to begin? For starters, we suggest sending everyone under 30 you know an electronic care package with inspiration, motivation, and resources like this PSA (, this meme (, this site ( and this app (

You can count on them to take it from there; our wisend children and grandchildren know they’re going to have to be the next Greatest Generation, if our nation–and species–is going to surmount all the challenges in front of us.  The good news is that all signs point to their being up for the task–if we’ll let them take it on.

Part of our 21st Century Citizenship series

Creative Politics synthesizes the best of liberal and conservative ideals with technology and history to generate policies, strategies, applications, and actions for the post-modern era that are well outside the beltway, and well beyond just talk.  All Creative Politics blog posts are collaborative, living documents, the way Madison and Hamilton create them if they were writing the Federalist Papers today. We welcome, nay urge, your feedback in the comment/discussion section below, and will be using it (with credit) to make what you just read more and more real–thanks much for your time and insights; they will go unpunished!

1 Even if the real percentage is as much as 10 points lower, our point still stands, and frankly, after the last four years, we don’t really care who it offends. Back

No Photoshop this time, just what Baker wants to plant in front of the house. Nice, eh?

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