Author: Vivian Hamilton

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Why States Should Ban Adolescent Driving (cont’d)

My previous post argues for raising the driving age, ideally to 18. Thank you to those who commented. You raise many good points, so I continue the conversation here. (And I must especially thank Prof. Cunningham for reading my article, and for his kind words.)

Treating Teens as Presumptively Delinquent? One comment suggests that raising the driving age treats young people as “presumptive law breakers.” I resist that characterization. Raising the driving age recognizes adolescent incapacity in this context and aims to protect adolescents, and those with whom they share the roadways, from the too-often tragic consequences of that incapacity. Such policy reform is consistent with the state’s obligations to its young people. I briefly discuss those general obligations, then return to the driving context specifically.

The State’s Obligations to Adolescents, Generally. The state should safeguard both the welfare interests and autonomy interests of the young. (I elaborate on this state obligation elsewhere, drawing on the work of my colleague James Dwyer and others.) Welfare interests pertain to young people’s well-being, irrespective of any affirmative choice they make. Autonomy interests refer to their interests in making self-determining choices and having the freedom to exercise the liberties of which they are capable. Compelling evidence suggests that driving is a liberty that adolescents do not have the capacity to exercise competently. The state thus fails to guard adolescents’ welfare interests — and protect them from their deficiencies — by extending them this liberty despite their incapacity.

Policymaking affecting adolescents in general poses a major challenge for lawmakers. Young people attain different capacities at different stages in their development, and development correlates predictably (though not perfectly) with age. Identifying and extending to adolescents liberties in contexts in which they have attained competence can be a challenge. Further complicating the state’s task is that, even where adolescents may have achieved the ability to perform competently, certain real-world contexts predictably confound their capacities and impede their performance. Thus by mid-adolescence, individuals have reached adult-like information-processing and logical reasoning abilities. But the quality of their decision making suffers in situations that require adolescents to quickly assess and react to risk, to reason while highly stressed or in the heat of passion, to make decisions in unfamiliar circumstances, or to act in the presence/under the pressure of peers. The neurobiological processes that support decision making under these conditions do not fully mature until late adolescence or early adulthood.

Prof. Cunningham’s analogy to rules that allow minors to disclaim contracts is a good example of a policy choice that may be at odds with what we now know about adolescent decision-making capacity. (I discuss adolescent contractual capacity briefly in another article (at pp. 1851-57, which argues against adolescent marriage.) By mid-adolescence, individuals have the cognitive capacity to understand the rights, duties, and responsibilities of a contract, and in light of that understanding, are able to make a voluntary choice to enter it or not. Absent the same factors that would invalidate a contract entered by an adult (duress, etc.), there is a strong argument that the adolescent should be held to his or her bargain. But contract policy might also permit minors to disclaim contracts entered in the sorts of contexts likely to compromise their decision making (e.g., the typically pressured context of buying a used car?).

Back to adolescent driving:

How Serious a Public Health Threat? One commenter (SgtDad) notes that traffic fatalities have declined in recent decades, making adolescent driving an “ever smaller problem,” with policy changes in turn having an “ever smaller effect.” To what extent does adolescent driving remain a true public health problem? An estimated 48 thousand 16- to 19-year-olds will die in car crashes

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Why States Should Ban Adolescent Driving

Car crashes kill more teens each year than any other cause; and of the crashes in which they are involved, teens are overwhelmingly at fault. Decades of law-reform efforts have led to mandatory seatbelt laws, an increased legal drinking age, and graduated-licensing systems. Yet traffic fatalities still account for nearly 40% of all deaths of 16- to 19-year-olds. Driving, then, is arguably the greatest public health threat facing U.S. teens. (The next three leading causes of teen death — homicides, suicides, and cancer-related illness — trail only distantly.) While existing measures have had some positive effects, they insufficiently safeguard both young drivers and the public at large from young drivers’ immaturity and inexperience. A report of a National Academies interdisciplinary workshop, for example, concluded that “the sheer magnitude of the injuries and fatalities that continue to result from teen crashes shows that current prevention efforts are inadequate.”

Most of us know that teens crash at rates far higher than those of older drivers. Fewer may be aware that the younger the teen driver, the higher the risk — by far the highest crash rates are those of 16-year-olds (250% higher than those of 18-year-olds), followed by those of 17-year-olds (50% higher than those of 18-year-olds). Driving inexperience and developmental immaturity are the primary factors that contribute to adolescent crash risk. Driving inexperience, however, is not the primary cause of the higher crash risk of younger teens. At younger ages (15 to 17), driving inexperience is secondary to developmental immaturity; not until later ages do different levels of driving experience account for more of the differences in crash rates. Thus the crash risk for 15-year-old beginners is much higher than that for 17-year-old beginners, but the crash risk for 18-year-old beginners is only slightly higher than that for 20-year-old beginners. At each month of driving experience, young drivers crash at rates higher than those of older drivers with equal driving experience.

By ages 15 or 16, adolescents indeed have the cognitive ability required to learn traffic rules and basic driving skills. But the self-regulatory capacities and psychosocial maturity essential to competent and safe driving remain immature in adolescence (the developmental stage between childhood and adulthood, generally spanning ages 12 to 17), as observed in research of adolescent behavior generally and driving behavior specifically, and supported by research of the adolescent brain. When decision-making contexts involve stressors that require the exercise of psychosocial maturity/regulatory competence — requiring, for example, that a decision be made in an unfamiliar situation (such as the new perceptual situations involved in driving); under time pressure (such as the nearly-instantaneous reactions often required when reacting to driving hazards); in in the presence/under the influence of peers (including the direct or perceived influence of peer passengers); or in an emotionally-charged situation — adolescent decision making suffers. These characteristics all confound the execution of whatever nascent driving competence adolescents do possess.

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Why We Should Raise the Marriage Age

My last series of posts argued that states should lower the voting age, since by mid-adolescence, teens have the cognitive-processing and reasoning capacities required for voting competence. But that is not to say that teens have attained adult-like capacities across all domains. To the contrary, context matters. And one context in which teens lack competence is marriage.

Through a single statutory adjustment — raising to 21 the age at which individuals may marry — legislators could reduce the percentage of marriages ending in divorce, improve women’s mental and physical health, and elevate women’s and children’s socioeconomic status.

More than 1 in 10 U.S. women surveyed between 2001 and 2002 had married before age 18, with 9.4 million having married at age 16 or younger. In 2010, some 520,000 U.S. teens were married, divorced, or widowed. In an article published last month, The Age of Marital Capacity: Reconsidering Civil Recognition of Adolescent Marriage, I describe more fully the social costs of early marriage and argue for an end to the practice.

The High Costs of Early Marriage

For decades, age at marriage has been the most consistent and unequivocal predictor of marital failure. Of marriages entered at age 25 or later, fewer than 30% end in divorce. Of marriages entered before age 18, on the other hand, nearly 70% end in divorce. The earliest marriers, those adolescents who enter marriage in their mid-teens, experience marital failure rates closer to a sobering 80%. Not until age 22 does marital stability improve significantly and do marriage dissolution rates begin to level off.

The costs of child marriages (entered before age 18) and early marriages more generally (entered at age 21 or younger) extend beyond their dissolution. Early marriers are more likely than those who delay or avoid marriage to discontinue their formal educations prematurely, earn low wages, and live in poverty. Women who marry early develop more mental and physical health problems than those who marry later. And following divorce, mothers (and their children) tend to suffer greater economic deprivation and instability than do their never-married counterparts. (See here, pp. 1799-1806)

Neither attaining age 18 (the near-universal age of presumptive marital capacity) nor obtaining the consent of parents and/or  judges (generally required for those individuals seeking to marry before age 18) has an observable effect on marital stability. Only delay and factors integrally associated with it — such as more years of education — reliably increase marital stability.

Causes of Early Marriage Instability

Why are marriages entered at earlier ages so unstable? And what can be done about it? The answer to the first question is complicated; the answer to the second question is not.

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How Young Should Voters Be?: 16-Year-Olds’ Entitlement to the Most Basic Civil Right [Part V]

This is the last in a series of posts on the voting age. In what is becoming a global trend, more than a dozen democratic nations have lowered their voting ages to 16, and others are seriously considering doing so. Two days from now (on Jan. 24), the House of Commons will debate a pending bill, the Voting Age (Comprehensive Reduction) Act 2013, which would set the voting age to 16 across the United Kingdom. Parliamentary assemblies in Scotland, Wales, and the self-governing British Crown Dependencies have already voted to do so. The United States is not among the democracies considering this issue, but it should be. As we extol the virtues of political participation to nascent democracies around the world, we should also remain open to reexamining our own electoral processes — particularly those that result in individuals’ categorical exclusion from political participation. (See my first post.)

It is time we too reexamined the voting age. It was lowered in 1972 from 21 to 18 to bring it in line with the draft age. “Old enough to fight, old enough to vote” remains catchy and has intuitive appeal, but the logic is questionable, as the ability to do one does not necessarily imply the ability — or inability — to do the other. We now know more about voter decision making in general, processes of cognitive development, and adolescent decision making in particular. This knowledge contributes to our ability to make better-informed assessments of what competent voting entails, and the age by which that competence is reliably attained.

Generally, our voter qualification rules aim to ensure would-be voters’ (1) interest in and ongoing connection to the political community; and (2) vote decision-making competence. The young are interested members of the community, so only their presumed lack of competence justifies their exclusion. Informed by empirical studies of voter decision making, I have argued for a cognitive-process-driven conception of vote decision-making competence (see my second post). I explained in my third post why this conception of competence would not operate to disfranchise current voters. A conception of vote decision-making competence instead provides us with a tool we currently lack — a principled standard against which to assess the age or age range by which typical individuals reliably attain the capacities that constitute competence. Upon reaching that age, individuals would, just as they do today, automatically gain the franchise. The state should then bear a heavy burden to disfranchise individuals presumptively entitled to vote but whose competence is nonetheless in question, such as adults with mental impairments. (For a thoughtful critique of individualized assessment tools advocated by some, see this article by Prof. Nina Kohn.)

I argued in my most recent post that 16- and 17-year-olds have attained the cognitive and decision-making capacities required for vote decision-making competence. That alone ought to justify their enfranchisement; their unwarranted exclusion diminishes our democratic legitimacy. (For an elaboration of the above arguments, see my recently-published article, Democratic Inclusion, Cognitive Development, and the Age of Electoral Majority.)

Correcting the arbitrary exclusion of this (competent) cohort of the political community is arguably the most powerful reason for enfranchising 16- and 17-year-olds. Lowering the voting age may also improve our democratic processes in other important ways. It may, for example lead to:

Increased Voter Knowledge: Public ignorance of basic civics, government, and politics is well established. Becoming eligible to vote while still enrolled in high school, however, makes lessons in civics/government more immediately relevant to students’ lives. That immediacy — the real-world application of acquired knowledge — can give students added enthusiasm and incentive to learn, and can provide educators with invaluable teaching tools. Currently, many students will leave high school before becoming eligible to vote, may no longer be in a structured educational setting once they do become eligible, and may wait several years before having the opportunity to vote in a presidential election. Their political disengagement is obviously not inevitable; we have simply lost an opportunity to impart lasting lessons, generate early enthusiasm, and encourage lasting habits (see below) of political engagement and participation.

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Just How Young Should Voters Be? Part IV: Assessing Adolescents’ Electoral Competence

Citizenship and suffrage go hand in hand. This series of posts, drawing on a recently-published  article,  considers the age-based exclusion of citizens younger than 18. A growing number of countries, as I noted in my first post, have lowered their voting ages to 16 or are considering doing so. The United States should be among those democracies reassessing the electoral exclusion of at least some cohort of its younger citizens.

Electoral standards have long required both (1) ongoing community connection and interest, and (2) vote decision-making competence. Individuals lacking either of these characteristics (or more precisely, the indicia of them reflected in specific voter qualification rules) are commonly disqualified from voting. Thus, voter qualification rules that require citizenship, residency, and law-abidingness presumably ensure that voters meet the first standard — community connection and interest. The young meet that standard. They are members of the political community, with significant interest in and ongoing connections to it. It is only their failure to meet the second standard — vote decision-making competence — that can justify their exclusion.

What Constitutes Vote Decision-Making Competence [Redux]? 

The state excludes citizens younger than 18 from the electorate because they have presumably not yet attained vote decision-making competence, but missing from this justification of their exclusion is a conception of that competence. Some conception of electoral competence — the basic capacities required for voting — is required before the state can credibly assess its attainment, or identify its absence. Age-based line drawing with respect to the development-related attainment of electoral competence is a practical necessity. The state owes its citizens its best effort (some effort) to first ascertain a principled yet pragmatic conception of electoral competence, then to assess young people’s attainment of it, and finally to draw the voting-age line in a manner consistent with that assessment. Otherwise, the state cannot meet its burden of justifying electoral exclusion.

What constitutes vote decision-making competence? Based on empirical studies of voter decision making, incorporating factual knowledge (of civics, politics, etc.) into a standard of electoral competence risks disfranchising much of the current electorate, and it is also unnecessary to ensuring correct vote decisions (those a voter would have made under conditions of full information, given the voter’s subjective values). I thus argued in my second post for a cognitive-process-driven conception of electoral competence. It requires “adultlike” rather than “mature” reasoning processes, because there is no universal state of maturity attained by all, or even most, adults. Requiring “mature” reasoning, like requiring factual knowledge, risks disfranchising many current voters.

I thus propose a conception of electoral competence in which a minimally competent voting decision involves an adultlike application and coordination of various reasoning processes to make a choice that could be justified by a good-enough reason.

The Development-Related Attainment of Vote Decision-Making Competence

Cognitive capacity improves more or less linearly throughout childhood and reaches adultlike levels by midadolescence. By age 15 or 16, adolescents are as able as adults to acquire, retain, and retrieve relevant information and apply to it reasoning processes that lead to justifiable conclusions. Researchers have consistently found the logical reasoning and information-processing abilities of 16-year-olds to be essentially indistinguishable from those of adults. According to developmental psychologist David Moshman, “[n]o theorist or researcher has ever identified a form or level of thinking routine among adults that is rarely seen in adolescence.”

But while they have adultlike abilities to think and reach rational judgments, adolescents’ capacities are more susceptible than are adults’ to being confounded by the real-world contexts in which they make decisions. When they must make decisions quickly or under pressure, or when they are highly emotional or stressed, adolescents’ performance suffers. In contexts in which adolescents are likely to make poor decisions — especially when their decisions will have negative externalities — the state properly constrains their decision-making liberty.

[For an elaboration of the context-specific nature of adolescent decision making, see here. For a discussion of neurologically-based models that have the potential to explain adolescents’ poor decision making despite their mature cognitive abilities, as well as other aspects of adolescent psychology and behavior, see here.]

Elections are a decision-making domain in which adolescents’ cognitive-processing abilities would almost certainly remain uncompromised. Elections unfold over a period of time, giving voters the opportunity to deliberate and evaluate options without undue pressure. Many sources of information are readily available (televised debates, party affiliations, etc.), which serve as scaffolding or heuristics to help votes evaluate their choices. And voting itself is done anonymously and in private, which diminishes the concern that adolescents’ ultimate choices will be unduly pressured or dictated by their peers or others. (Ken A., in a comment to my previous post, mentioned the potentially undue influence of parents, but the intergenerational transfer of party affiliation seems to be a well-established fact of political life.)

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Just How Young Should Voters Be? Part III: Why We Need a Conception of Electoral Competence, and Its Implications for Adults with Cognitive Impairments

Professor Joey Fishkin raised several important questions in his comment to my previous post. I’d initially planned to set out a pretty streamlined version of my argument for lowering the voting age, but I think his questions merit a bit of a detour/elaboration.

Do We Really Want to Reintroduce Notions of Electoral Competence? Fishkin suggests that introducing a conception of electoral competence is potentially fraught. And he’s right–political elite have historically, and notoriously, invoked the supposed incompetence of various groups to justify their categorical disfranchisement. But competence as a basic criterion for voting has been a constant. Indeed, some notion of it is what justifies voting-age requirements. Only young people’s want of the relevant competence (however that competence is defined/conceptualized) can render legitimate their electoral exclusion.

There can be little dispute that newborns lack the relevant competence, or that individuals typically acquire it at some point over the course of their development. Development and age predictably correlate. There is thus a temporal element to the attainment of electoral competence, making age arguably the most reasonable proxy for it.

Competence-based arguments did not drive the nation to lower the voting age from 21 to 18; Congress’s lowering of the draft age did (see what is probably the most comprehensive history of the passage of the 26th Am., lowering the voting age: Wendell Cultice, Youth’s Battle for the Ballot). Is age 18 the most reliable indicator of electoral competence that we can identify today? To decide, I think we need to answer two questions: First, what is the most appropriate conception of electoral decision-making competence (discussed in my last post)? And second, is it possible to identify an age or age range by which that competence has reliably developed (next post)?

Does the Conception of Electoral Competence I Suggest Risk Disfranchising Segments of the Adult Population? Fishkin suggests that it could, but I don’t think so. I don’t propose that individual would-be voters would have to demonstrate that they meet this standard in order to qualify to vote. I concede the practicality of age as proxy for electoral competence. I advance a conception of competence to guide a reevaluation of our current age-proxy and, if appropriate, establish a better, more empirically-grounded and principled one. We would assess the age or age range by which typical individuals reliably develop electoral decision-making competence. Individuals who attain the age of presumptive competence (just as they do today) would automatically gain the franchise.

The standard for electoral competence I argue for requires certain thinking/reasoning capacities (these attend normal individual development, which may be improved by, but does not require, specific levels or types of learning). Some individuals may meet this standard prior to attaining the presumptive age of competence; some will reach the presumptive age of competence (and gain the franchise) without having attained the typical capacities  Such slippage is the nature of proxies.

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Just How Youthful Should Voters Be? Part II: Defining Electoral Decision-Making Competence

This is the second of three (or so) posts on the youth vote and the voting age. In a post last week, I suggested that the United States should join other democracies reevaluating their ages of electoral majority.

In this post, I argue that deciding whether a group of individuals is competent to vote first requires a conception of what constitutes electoral competence, and I offer such a conception. My next post will examine whether such competence is reliably achieved earlier than age 18.

Basic Voting Criteria: Connection/Interest and Competence. Basic voting criteria have remained essentially unchanged across the centuries and generally require for electoral inclusion  (1) a significant and ongoing interest in and connection to the community; and (2) vote decision-making competence. (Few democracy theorists, though, have sought to justify these intuitively-correct criteria. I attempt to do so here, pp. 1484-90.) But while the basic criteria have remained unchanged, notions of reliable indicia of them–reflected in specific voter qualification rules–have changed significantly.

Historically, property ownership was a voter qualification rule believed necessary to ensure a potential voter’s ongoing community connection and interest. Today, citizenship, residence, and law-abidingness qualifications all seek to ensure the same criteria (ongoing connection and interest). And historically, the intellectual independence required for electoral decision-making competence was deemed impossible in the absence of economic independence, since dependent voters might be unwilling to vote in a way that displeased those to whom they were economically beholden. Today, different voter qualification rules aim to ensure that voters possess electoral decision-making competence. State rules allow, for example, the disfranchisement of adults deemed mentally incompetent. The primary voter qualification rule aimed at ensuring that voters have developed the requisite competence, however, is the voting age.

Indicia of Competence: Political/Civics Knowledge? Rousseau believed that a well-informed citizenry was necessary to determine and implement the public good, and many modern theorists agree that informed and watchful citizens help ensure a responsive, accountable government. Yet the typical citizen, it is safe to say, is far removed from the ideal citizen of classic democratic theory.

Studies consistently find that public ignorance is widespread and extends to knowledge of basic civics and government. Mark Blumenthal, senior polling editor of the Huffington Post and founder of Pollster.com glumly wrote, “[one] can almost never underestimate the level of information about politics and government possessed by the voters who typically decide the outcome of elections.”

Incorporating even basic levels of civics or political knowledge into a conception of electoral competence theoretically justifies voter qualification rules that would operate to disfranchise a significant proportion of the current electorate. Moreover, rates of disfranchisement would be unequally distributed across the population based on differences in knowledge among various groups that have held steady over time: more women would be disfranchised than men; more African Americans than whites; more low-income earners than high-income earners; and more people under 30 than those 65 and older. Formal requirements aimed at ensuring well-informed voting would likely result in a better-informed electorate, but also a less representative and democratic one.

The Ill-Informed–Yet Competent-Enough–Voter. In lieu of incurring the costs of educating themselves, voters generally rely on more readily available information shortcuts (or heuristics), which substitute for more complete information. These can include party affiliation, group endorsements, or person stereotypes such as gender, race, or age. Heuristics allow voters (indeed, decision makers in innumerable contexts) to make decisions reasonably consistent with their preferences while expending relatively little effort. Empirical political scientists Richard Lau and David Redlawsk have extensively researched voter decision making and the effectiveness of heuristic use and found that their “limited information decision strategies not only may perform as well as, but in many instances may perform better than, traditional rational . . . decision strategies.” (For a detailed explanation of their findings, see the previous link at pp. 212-26; See also here, reporting studies finding that greater amounts of preexisting knowledge can in some instances hinder rational analysis of new facts.)

Lau and Redlawsk have found that the typical voter generally reaches a rational and “correct” voting decision (defined as one that is the same as the choice that the voter would have made under conditions of full information, given the voter’s subjective beliefs and values) by acquiring and processing smaller, readily available bits of meaningful information that function as serviceable substitutes for full information. Thus, not only does incorporating factual knowledge into a normative standard of electoral competence risk disfranchising much of the current electorate; it is also unnecessary to ensure generally correct vote decisions.

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The Youth Vote Matters. But Just How Young Should Voters Be? [Part I]

Happy New Year, and thanks to Solangel Maldonado for inviting me to participate.

One of the most consequential events of 2012 was the presidential election, and critical to it was the youth vote. Young voters aged 18 to 29 turned out at virtually the same rate as they had in 2008, despite predictions that their enthusiastic participation in that historic election would be a one-time anomaly. On November 6, a lopsided 60 percent of the youth vote went to the President, while 36 percent went to Mitt Romney. Had Romney managed to garner 50 percent of the youth vote in four swing states (Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia), he would have won those states’ electoral votes, and the presidency. The political implications of the youth vote for future elections are thus significant. Young voters have established themselves as an important voting bloc, particularly in swing states.

Across the United States, the voting age to participate in general elections is 18, with age serving as a proxy for the attainment of electoral decision-making competence. Whether young voters will continue to lean left in future election cycles is a significant question. A more significant question, though, is whether the current voting age is the best available proxy for electoral competence. Indeed, the latter question cuts to the core of democratic government. I explore it in a recent article and will highlight aspects of this critical, yet largely ignored, question in upcoming posts.

More than a dozen nations have recently lowered local, state, or national voting ages to 16, aiming primarily to increase youths’ political engagement and counter the disproportionate political influence of older citizens. In Europe, these include Austria, Scotland, Wales, the self-governing British Crown Dependencies, nearly half of all German states, and several Swiss states (Scotland and Wales are awaiting from Westminster authority to effectuate the measure but have implemented it for local elections). Norway instituted a pilot project in 2011 allowing 16 year-olds to vote in local elections. Latin American countries that allow 16 year-olds to vote include Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and–as of October 2012–Argentina. British and Canadian Parliaments have voted on bills proposing to lower national voting ages (though these have so far failed to pass), and former Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown both announced while in office their support for a lower voting age.

That the global trend is to extend, or consider extending, the franchise to 16- and 17-year-olds does not mean that the United States should automatically do the same, nor that doing so necessarily makes for better democracy. But for the United States, which holds itself out as a beacon of democratic participation, not to be among the world’s democracies at least evaluating the electoral inclusion of some cohort of its younger citizens demonstrates a complacency with respect to exclusion that is itself a democratic deficit.

In upcoming posts, I will explore ideals of the citizen-voter from classic democratic theory, argue for a conception of electoral competence, and examine research from several disciplines within the developmental sciences exploring the connection between age range and the attainment of certain cognitive competencies. I conclude that age 18 may have been the best available proxy for electoral competence when the nation adopted it as the voting age in 1971, but developments since then enable us to identify a better proxy.

That younger voters have demonstrated a proclivity to lean left may make some policy makers reluctant to even entertain what ought to be a question of democratic legitimacy, not politics. That may ultimately be political reality, but, as future posts will aim to show, it would also be a real shame.