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Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. A former professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Longshot Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy is proposing to raise the voting age from 18 to 25, with exceptions for those who serve in the military, work as first responders, or pass a civics test. “There needs to be some civic experience you need to have gone through in order to actually vote,” he says.
He’s entirely wrong.
He’s wrong on the merits, which I’ll get to, but it’s worth pointing out that Republicans have developed a bad habit of responding to electoral losses by attempting to restrict the franchise, whether explicitly — as in this proposal — or implicitly, with laws that make it harder for groups that tend to support Democrats to cast their ballots. It’s a bad habit not just for democracy but for the party, which doesn’t do the hard work of trying to figure out how to make its principles appealing to new voters.
There are also practical problems here. Making this proposal law would require a constitutional amendment, since the Constitution currently mandates voting for 18-year-olds. It’s highly unlikely such an amendment would pass.
And then there are the merits of the proposal — or rather, the lack thereof.
The basic questions these kinds of discussions invite is why we have a democracy in the first place, and why voting is a central part of all modern democracies. There are essentially two good answers.
One is that democracies are the best way to ensure that a government looks out for the public interest, and elections force politicians to represent every citizen. If politics is mainly about who gets what, and democracy is about including everyone in that “who,” then it’s critical that everyone’s interests be protected by extending the franchise.
Indeed, for those who see politics through this Lockean frame, expanding not restricting the vote makes sense. In fact, if democracy is about protecting the interests of all citizens, then children should have the vote — or, barring that, parents should vote on their kids’ behalf. That seems odd to Americans only because we’re not used to it; if the English had adopted so-called Demeny voting a few hundred years ago, parents today would be furious at any proposal to remove it.
There is another way of thinking about politics and democracy: Politics is about participating in collective self-government, which is valuable for its own sake. If that’s the theory, then democracy is valuable because it enlarges the experience of organizing our world. In that case, voting is less the core of democracy and more a training wheels of politics — a way of participating that’s relatively easy and good practice for more complex forms of participation. There’s no real way to say when young people are old enough to see voting (or any political act) as meaningful, but that age is surely closer to 13 than to 25.
One final observation: Arguments about restricting the vote almost never attempt to restrict other forms of participation, such as electioneering or lobbying. Yet many teenagers participate in politics in these ways, and sometimes their actions have larger effects than their vote does.
What about the specifics of Ramaswamy’s proposal? To the extent it’s not just a plan to disenfranchise Democrats, it’s rooted in at least two false premises. One is that the way to get good decisions in democracies is to restrict participation to “the best” of us. Leaving aside who gets to choose “the best,” the whole notion is logically flawed: There will be a hierarchy among those who are selected as “the best” — the best of the best, as it were — and so the incentive will always be to impose more restrictions to further “improve” the electorate. Eventually only a handful will remain. In other words, this is an aristocratic (or even authoritarian) principle.
In reality, however, we can’t leave aside who gets to choose. That the vote — the basic act of participation in politics — should be seen as some kind of reward implies a system in which there is someone who gets to choose who participates. And if a political system already has someone in charge, then it’s obvious that the vote isn’t actually meaningful.
Democracies require the vote for all citizens, or at least all who are capable of minimal levels of participation. We should err in the direction of extending the franchise, not restricting it. It’s a simple principle that is exactly what any reasonable interpretation of democracy demands.