Democratic Inclusion, Cognitive Development, and the Age of Electoral Majority

68 Pages Posted: 18 Jun 2012 Last revised: 2 Jan 2013

Date Written: 2012


The age of electoral majority has declined over time and across the globe. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the average voting age worldwide was just under twenty-four; today, it is just over seventeen. More than a dozen nations have recently lowered local, state, or national voting ages to sixteen. Others, including Australia and the U.K., are seriously considering doing the same. Yet the United States, which holds itself out as a beacon of democratic participation, is not currently considering the electoral inclusion of some cohort of its younger citizens. For a number of compelling reasons, it should be.

Classic democratic theory describes the decision making of the ideal citizen-voter as both well-informed and rational. The decision making of the actual citizen-voter, however, is often neither. For reasons detailed in this article, I argue for a conception of electoral competence (1) informed by behavioral decision theory and studies of voter decision making; and (2) characterized by the reliable attainment of the relevant cognitive processes (cognition/learning, information processing, and decision making) and maturity of judgment.

Converging research from several disciplines within the developmental sciences has established a reliable connection between age range and the attainment of certain cognitive competencies. Research in developmental psychology and cognitive and social neuroscience explains that/why adolescents make notoriously bad decisions under certain conditions. It also explains that by mid-adolescence, when making unpressured, considered decisions — like those required to privately cast a ballot in an election that has unfolded over time — their cognitive competencies are mature.

States can thus no longer justify the electoral exclusion of mid-adolescents by claiming that they lack the relevant competencies. Absent other legitimate bases for their exclusion, I argue that the democratic presumption of inclusion obliges the states to adjust downward the age of electoral majority.

Keywords: Voting Rights, Adolescents

Suggested Citation

Hamilton, Vivian E., Democratic Inclusion, Cognitive Development, and the Age of Electoral Majority (2012). Brooklyn Law Review, Vol. 77, No. 4, p. 1, 2012, Available at SSRN:

Vivian E. Hamilton (Contact Author)

William & Mary Law School ( email )

South Henry Street
P.O. Box 8795
Williamsburg, VA 23187-8795
United States

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