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Kids and the Right to Vote
By Deb Lewis

Kids and the Right to VoteTwelve years ago, I met someone who has continued to force me to reevaluate the way our government and society view children. He’s a capable American citizen, informed, intelligent and interested in the process of government. He’s my twelve-year-old son, and although he knows more about the process and the candidates than many adults, he won’t have the right to vote for six more years.

Lawmakers have gone to a lot of hard work and expense to make the process of voting fair and polling places accessible to everyone. Yet there are millions of young Americans – some as informed as my son – who are denied participation in the process that will govern them.

When my son was very young, I watched his reasoning process grow and change, and my understanding of human learning and ability evolved. He was talking, understanding people and being understood without one English lesson. He was walking without ever studying anatomy or gross motor skills development. He surprised me almost everyday until my narrow expectations of children crumbled and I came to realize that every child is born suited to a life as a human. Yet, our society puts children into a small, not-quite-ready-to-be-a-person box and tries to hold them there.

We have in place a number of age-based laws that define when young people are ready for certain rights and aspects of life. These laws offer no protection to young people that could not be provided by means other than age-based laws. Instead of considering natural and personal abilities or limitations as factors that would determine an individual’s readiness for ever increasing experiences and responsibilities, we set the arbitrary criteria of age.

In Escape from Childhood: The Needs and Rights of Children (Ballantine Books, 1974) John Holt wrote: “I urge that the law grant and guarantee to the young the freedom that it now grants to adults to make certain kinds of choices, do certain kinds of things, and accept certain kinds of responsibilities. This means in turn that the law will take action against anyone who interferes with young people’s rights to do such things. Thus when the law guarantees me the right to vote, it is not saying I must vote, it is not giving me a vote. It only says that if I choose to vote it will act against anyone who tries to prevent me. In granting me rights the law does not say what I must or shall do. It simply says that it will not allow other people to prevent me from doing these things.”

All these years later, our government still says we are unqualified to vote the day before their eighteenth birthday, but magically qualified the day after. While this is only one of many ways young people are discriminated against, it might be the most serious. For while the government is making laws effecting young people, those young people are not, intern, capable of effecting government.

One of the arguments against eliminating voting age restrictions is that it would be unfair for mere children to make decisions that would affect the lives of adults. It’s a hypocritical argument when one considers all the decisions made by adults that affect the lives of young people. These include curfew laws; driving age restrictions; restrictions about purchase of certain types of music, magazines, video games and movies; and compulsory school attendance. Even worse are laws allowing corporal punishment; there is no other member of our society who can be physically assaulted without any means of legal recourse. Equality before the law, it seems, is not meant for all.

While children are considered too young to have a valid political opinion, too young to be allowed to select their own music, too young to attempt to pass a driving test, they are, in many states, old enough to be tried as adults if they commit a crime.

Whatever arguments can be made today to deny young people the right to vote have been made before in opposition to women voting, to minority civil rights and to lowering the voting age to 18. In the end I think it comes down to fear. Thinking about giving power to those who’ve deliberately been made powerless makes people nervous. This is not a new fear. In 1776, John Adams said this: “It is dangerous to open so fruitful a source of controversy and altercation as would be opened by attempting to alter the qualifications of voters; there will be no end of it. New claims will arise: women will demand a vote; lads from twelve to twenty-one will think their rights not enough attended to; and every man who has not a farthing will demand an equal voice with any other in all acts of state.”

Women do have the right to vote today. Held down for more than a hundred years we are participating in the process and our nation survived the controversy Adams feared – evidence of the evolution of our system and a hopeful reminder that ideas and governments can change and grow to serve all the people.

Deb Lewis lives and unschools in Deer Lodge, Montana with her husband David and son Dylan. She’s a frequent contributor to online unschooling forums and the Montana Unschooling Newsletter.

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