Why Can’t Babies Vote? Insights from the Sorites Paradox

The 1918 Representation of the People Act swept away gender and property as qualifications for the franchise, leaving age as the sole criterion. Although there’s been tinkering with the actual age at which British citizens can vote, the principle remains the same: with age comes maturity. And maturity is believed to be the key to the sound exercising of the vote. The Sorites Paradox (see addendum two) offers an insight into the challenges that using age brings to restricting the franchise.

Newly born babies are the paradigm of citizens who shouldn’t be enfranchised because they’re entirely dependent. Their life unambiguously revolves around services provided for them without them exercising any choices. Ambiguity begins when the paradigm is weakened. The citizen who goes to infant school has moved the paradigm. Five year old citizens do have the ability to make choices. And it’s this ability which underpins successful voting*. Voters must be able to exercise choice, even if they’re clueless as to the issues in question. The Scottish Independence Referendum was binary so all that was needed was ‘for or against’. Babies can’t do that but five year old citizens can. The Scottish Parliament rightly noted 16/17 year old citizens had the ability to choose. They legislated so that those citizens could participate in the 2015 Referendum. (They made an a priori decision not to consider the claims of 14, 12, 10, 8, 6 and 4 year old citizens.)

Arguments for the connexion between age and maturity vary “…we believe the evidence is clear that 16 and 17 year olds are mature enough to participate in our democracy, and a great many of them wish to do so…**” Meanwhile a scientific argument declares that, “There is some neuroscientific research which suggests that by the time adolescents are 16, their brain is sufficiently developed to support adult-like reasoning capabilities.**” It seems demonstrable, on these accounts, that 16/17 year olds are ‘mature’ and have ‘adult-like reasoning’. The Sorites Paradox suggests that any connexion is purely contingent.

In Britain an Electoral Roll is prepared annually***. Citizens of 18 years and one day on registration day qualify for the electoral roll. Other citizens who are 17 years and 364 days are excluded. A Scottish example has citizens aged 16 years and one day and others aged 15 years and 364 days. This is a mystical qualification whose principal virtue is convenience for those desiring to restrict the franchise.

The quotations from Democratic Audit above link (a) ‘maturity’ and (b) ‘adult-like reasoning’. Being alive for an additional 48 hours doesn’t make a difference to either (a) or (b). Worse, the electoral roll is prepared long before election day by which time our excluded citizens will be 18/16. They will possess that which triggers ‘maturity with adult-like reasoning’ with only bureaucracy as an obstacle to voting. Those in favour of age as a criterion for the franchise have to say which day is the day which triggers the failure to be mature with ‘adult-like reasoning’.

Berry, Kippin and Russell**** are obliged to verify their original proposition that there’s any connexion between reaching an age and a mental state. Are all 18 year olds ‘mature enough’ with ‘adult-like reasoning’ so that they can be successful when exercising the franchise? What sort of test is required to verify the claim that there’s a connexion between being a Scottish 16 year old and being, “mature enough to participate in our democracy…” Unpicking this is tricky. Does this mean identifying a box and being able to place a cross in it or reading and understanding manifestos? Meanwhile Russell thinks that when, “adolescents are 16, their brain is sufficiently developed to support adult-like reasoning capabilities”. Interestingly his reductionist use of ‘their brain’ reveals the flaw in the entire discussion.

The 1918 Representation of the People Act swept away gender and property as barriers to participation in British democracy. The centenary of the Act is upon us. The principal barrier to universal suffrage age cannot remain unchallenged. Is now a suitable moment to review the entire principle of using age as the criterion for awarding the franchise in Britain?

ADDENDUM ONE: The historical background: 1918-2017

The Representation of the People Act in 1918 established the framework for British democracy from then to the present day. For men over the age of 21 there was universal suffrage. Initially women had the vote when 30 but in 1928 gender parity was introduced. This state of affairs remained in place until 1969 when the age limit was changed to 18. For national elections this is unaltered, however the Scottish parliament further reduced the age for the Scottish Referendum to 16.

ADDENDUM TWO: What is the Sorites Paradox?

The classic formulation relates to bald men. “Would you describe a man with one hair on his head as bald? Yes. Would you describe a man with two hairs on his head as bald? Yes. … However a man with ten thousand hairs on his head isn’t bald. So where do you draw the line? How many hairs can a man have before he isn’t bald any more?”

*“The DUP, on whose support Theresa May’s government relies, is vehemently opposed to the initial boundary change proposals for Northern Ireland, which are seen as adversely affecting unionist parties.” The DUP voter is so reliable that they can be ‘mapped’ and so maybe choice doesn’t really come into it. Perhaps voting is primarily a cultural/legacy activity where all you need to know is which ‘tribe’ you belong to? And if you don’t know you can easily ask a friend or relative.
For full article see https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/oct/17/boundary-changes-house-of-commons-mps-ministers-plans
**http://www.democraticaudit.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Votes-at-16.pdf see p7 and p31. The article by Andrew Russell in the same collection, pp34-6, is predicated on the Is-Ought Fallacy and lacks logical content even in its own terms.
****The authors of the two articles cited in *

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2 Responses to Why Can’t Babies Vote? Insights from the Sorites Paradox

  1. Voting entitlement has always reflected property rights, both in the sense of who owns property and individual contribution to public property (i.e. taxation that goes to the public treasury), rather than age per se. Once taxation shifted from consumption to income and payroll contributions, universal suffrage was inevitable. Similarly, once women were able to independently own property, the extension of suffrage was only a matter of time. The reason we deny 17-year-olds the vote has less to do with their mental competence and more to do with their limited property. “Choice” has always entailed responsibility, which is a euphemism for financial consequentiality.

    The pressing issue today is not the further extension of voting to lower age-groups, sensible though that might well be, but the defence of voting for existing groups in the face of media think-pieces advocating epistocracy or the reintroduction of income and property qualifications (no representation without taxation etc – not helped by moves to “take more people out of taxation”), while the growth of further education has led to the claim that 18-21 year-olds are “snowflakes” who lack the real-world nous necessary to participate in politics.

    • odeboyz says:

      To award the franchise on the basis of either property or ‘nous’ seems implausible.

      If we take property first it’s a problem knowing exactly what property actually means. Recently we have the formulation ‘Intellectual Property Rights’ and ‘Image Rights’. Thus the mind and the actuality of the physical presence is seen as property, which is an exercisable right in law. Property can also be physical property- my house for example. But what if I said that my property was my shirt? Would I be a property owner?

      ‘Nous’ is a can of worms. I touched on this by asking if the franchise meant that a voter could identify a box and correctly put a cross in it or, alternatively whether they needed to have read a manifesto? Brexit classically revealed that many people really had an emotional spasm when they claimed to be voting. Does the electorate really need to understand what they are voting for before they vote? And who is to be the arbiter?

      Thank you for your comment. If I’d had more space I’d probably have done a better job.

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