votes for children
“We call B.S.“
—Emma Gonzalez, 17, Parkland, FL
Part of our 21st Century Citizenship series
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 that age depraved enough to justify the franchise, and that does seem to be the way to look at it, warped as that is, in light of the litany above. Kids aren’t considered depraved enough to be given the rights and responsibilities of adults. 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. Let us explain, as we gently and not so gently demolish all the most well-established reflex arcs that have been fired to tell kids No. Because we said so.
Kids don’t know anything
We rest our case.
Seriously, as often as we’ve seen adult-written hand-wringings bemoaning the state of childrens’ 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 wasn’t 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 childhood (status-obsessed helicopter parenting) to good use for once?
Kids aren’t capable of critical thinking
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–neuropsychologists have found the average 9-10 year old’s executive function is equal to adults 40-49, and better than every age group older), who are pulling the lever for decisions that will likely never affect them, while denying 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 either. 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 again, 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, again, sounds like one of them good problems to have.
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 a reign of high currency? Who of any age is interested in having bureaucrats telling 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 or game? The fact of the matter is that 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 political scientist ordered to return the grand old party to its roots.
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. 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. I understand the problem for the idiologues–for some reason, our planet doesn’t recognize state borders, and is a thorn in the side of states rights purists as a result, but figure it out.
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 tweedledee-tweedledum 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.
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?
And there’s another way that kids can provide a democratic counterweight to the stranglehold of the wealthy, giving the lie of history to the unearned condescension dripping from such claims. 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 the one-percenters with FU resources and protection that allow them to focus on, and demand, everything they want from government that the rest of us would never dare, kids are fearless. It was two teenagers, Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith, for example, 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.”
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.
Would it surprise you to learn that nineteen states gave women the right to vote before the 19th amendment made it a constitutional right? Would it surprise you to learn that 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? There’s already a movement backed by a who’s who of K-12 civics organizations to get 16 year olds the right to vote in local elections. Let’s take it to the next level–what state do you think could become the kids’ Wyoming and why? Let us know in comments below–your choice could become one of our first campaigns.
In the meantime, let’s make sure kids’ representatives in the electoral marketplace–the millennials and iGens–start punching their weight, and then some, at the ballot box, starting on Tuesday. You can help by sending this PSA (http://bit.ly/dear_younguns) and this meme (http://bit.ly/gun_millennials) to everyone under 30 you know, and ask them to do the same.
All Creative Politics blog posts are collaborative, living documents, the way Madison and Hamilton would do it if they were writing the Federalist 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!