Developmental Justice and the Voting Age

42 Pages Posted: 21 Apr 2020

Date Written: March 26, 2020


Several municipalities have lowered the voting age to 16, with similar bills pending in state legislatures and one considered by Congress. Meanwhile, advocates for youth are trying to raise the ages of majority across an array of areas of law, including ages for diverting criminal conduct into the juvenile justice system (18 to 21); buying tobacco (18 to 21); driving (16 to 18); and obtaining support from the foster care system (18 to 21). Child welfare advocates are fighting the harms of Adultification, meaning the projection of adult capacities, responsibilities, and consequences onto minors. In legal and social history, seeing 16- and 17-year-olds as possessing adult capacities has connected with holding them responsible for adult decision-making, particularly in the criminal justice system, but also in disciplinary mechanisms at school. This effect is dramatically worse for children of color. These two movements are in tension; child welfare advocates are fighting Adultification while democracy advocates are fighting for younger entry into the adult political sphere. But the age of majority is not a technicality. It is a thick fabric of public and private laws formed for the protection of children and adolescents, an interwoven safety net, whose efficacy depends on the strength of the weave. Indeed, the age of majority plays a protective role in our 18-year-old voting age; the 16-year-old franchise exposes youth to constitutionally protected campaigning, inviting commercial and political interests to target teenagers with “political speech.” Currently, public law shields teenagers from this contact for fear they will be exploited, and private law enables parents to constrict campaign interactions with teenagers. Countless similar underappreciated harms of Adultification can carelessly deprive children of educational, housing, employment, and civic futures. The minor extant intrusions on the age of majority, such as the driving age, pale in comparison to the civic meaning of lowering the age of the franchise. When the voting age dropped from 21 to 18, states lowered their legal age of majority from 21 to 18 in response, influencing policies such as aging out of foster care and entitlement to child support beyond 18. As a core marker of citizenship, voting has had a powerful anchoring effect on ideas about civic maturity. Lowering the benchmark for civic maturity threatens to anchor a lower age for civic protection, as occurred when the 26th Amendment passed. This Article contends that 16- to 18-year-olds are entitled to their childhoods, as Greta Thunberg contends, with our protection and support, not to the burdens of adult hopes, adult expectations, adult uses, and adult consequences. It makes a claim for developmental justice grounded in participatory democracy. Lowering the voting age works at cross-purposes to the essential task of protecting youth from premature engagement with the criminal justice system, and with the long-term disenfranchisement that can come with that entanglement. With Adultification risking criminalization and criminalization risking disenfranchisement, current thinking about youth voting exposes disparities in public ambition for the future political participation of youth arising from the disparities in their childhood experiences.

Keywords: Voting, franchise, youth, juvenile, age, development, elections, disenfranchisement, campaigning, maturity, age of majority, adolescent, 26th Amendment, Parkland

Suggested Citation

Baird Silbaugh, Katharine, Developmental Justice and the Voting Age (March 26, 2020). Fordham Urban Law Journal, Vol. 47, No. 2, 2020, Boston Univ. School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 20-12, Available at SSRN:

Katharine Baird Silbaugh (Contact Author)

Boston University - School of Law ( email )

765 Commonwealth Avenue
Boston, MA 02215
United States

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