The teenage crusade for gun control has given new energy to an idea that I once supported fervently: Voting rights for 16-year-olds.
My support peaked when I was that age myself; I thought that lowering the voting age was literally the least that adults could do to acknowledge that their teenage kids were citizens, too, rather than a disenfranchised class imprisoned in classrooms and ruled by absurd drinking-age restrictions and … well, anyway, I had pretty strong views on the issue, let’s just put it that way, and also about the ridiculously early time my parents expected me home on weekend nights.
Now that I’m a father, I have equally strong views about a different way of representing minors in our electoral system. Namely, I think my wife and I should be able to cast extra votes on behalf of our three small children, until they’re old enough to choose for themselves between the presidential candidacies of Hope Hicks and Chelsea Clinton in 2032.
The term for this sort of system is “Demeny voting,” named for demographer Paul Demeny, who proposed the idea in 1986 to address the threat of gerontocracy — in which fertility declines and life expectancy increases and the political power of the elderly strangles future-oriented policymaking. Since then it’s been debated in low-fertility nations like Japan and Hungary, finding champions among demography-obsessed conservatives, but also among liberals concerned about a retiree-dominated politics and the just representation of the young.
Of course, under a Demeny system that representation would be achieved by proxy, a novel feature for a representative democracy — but on the spectrum of powers we necessarily grant to parents, hardly that dramatic of a step. The simplest mechanism would be to assign half a vote to each custodial parent; presumably single parents with full custody could exercise the full franchise for each child, and assigning rights in custody disputes and polyamorous households would provide a mild stimulus for the legal profession.
In the U.S., higher fertility rates track with support for Republicans, but single mothers are more likely to vote for Democrats — as are recent immigrants, a relatively high-fertility group. So Demeny voting might change the balance of power within each coalition rather than benefiting either party overall: Hispanics and low-income families would have more clout within the Democratic Party, and the Hannity-obsessed elderly would cede influence within the GOP to the minivan-driving middle-aged.
Both shifts would be positive. American life is increasingly polarized by age, with our politics tilted rightward by aging baby boomers voting Trump to hold off a millennial-ruled future and our cultural and commercial spheres devoted to pandering to the fashions of the adolescent. Parents, mostly Gen Xers now, are as well-positioned as any group to play a mediating role — and they will be more likely to play it effectively if they have the political power to redirect more resources to the beleaguered, ever-more-expensive cause of procreation.
Such a system, of course, would turn politically aware teenagers who differed ideologically from their parents into domestic dissidents, their citizenship hijacked, their support for an alderman who wants to build a skate park subsumed by their dad’s desire to make the local dog park great again. I’m personally not all that troubled by this injustice, but I’m happy to offer concessions to my 16-year-old self. There’s no reason Demeny voting when kids are small can’t coexist with giving teenagers the vote a little earlier, if that’s what’s required to make their parents’ empowerment during their minority more tolerable.
Sadly, the very thing that makes Demeny voting desirable — the political and cultural weakness of the family in an aging and individualist society — makes it hard to imagine how it could ever get off the ground politically. But it’s somewhat easier to imagine experiments at the state level, where a certain kind of political self-interest could grease the wheels.
Just as there’s currently a push for youth voting in liberal California, where more teenage voters would top off liberal supermajorities, there’s no reason that red states rich in Republican-voting families (hello, Utah) couldn’t consider experiments with Demeny voting. (Certainly it would be a far better voting-reform cause for social conservatives than the present Republican fixation on hassling Democratic constituencies — sorry, preventing voter fraud — with onerous voter registration requirements.) And then blue-state feminists could respond by embracing a matriarchal Demeny alternative, like economist Miles Corak’s suggestion that a child’s voting rights should be vested, not half in each parent, but wholly in the mother.
By the time the competing experiments are running and the debate is fully joined, I will have probably aged out of my current pro-parental biases and into a grouchy near-retirement. But even if I find gerontocracy more congenial by then, hopefully a Demeny movement will continue to live by the admonition I offer now: The hand that steers the minivan should be the hand that rules the world.
Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times. Reach him c/o The New York Times, Editorial Department, 620 8th Ave., New York, NY 10018. © 2017 New York Times News Service