It’s best to think of democracy as a tool. A tool is ‘a device used to carry out a particular function’. Therefore, democracy is a device used to carry out the function of providing good political leadership.

In 2004, Senator John Vasconcellos proposed the idea of a fractional voting system called ‘training wheels for citizenship’, in which 14-year-old citizens were afforded a quarter of the vote, and 16-year-olds, half. Perhaps unsurprisingly to some, there was widespread mockery and criticism of his proposal, and it ultimately failed to pass the Committee on Appropriations on August 12th, 2004. No doubt bruised by such derision, Vasconcellos’ frustration must have been compounded by the fact his critics failed to understand the message behind his extensive commitment to youth suffrage. In this article I will revisit the arguments that underpin training wheels for citizenship, but more pertinently, I will show the merits of his proposal as a method to improve the democratic process today.

Since its formal advent in the 5th Century B.C., scholars and politicians have cited a democratic system as the most fair and equal way of organising a society. Democracy is often recognised as the trademark of a just system, and the most effective way to ensure all voices are heard, and all people are looked after. If democracy is such a good thing, why is democracy in danger? According to the 2022 Freedom in the World report, authoritarian rule is expanding worldwide. From dictatorships to technocracies, various explanations have been given for the precarious state of democracy today.

It’s common to read articles blaming populist politics, media manipulation, or voter impressionability. Unfortunately, this is where a lot of these articles leave us - “Democracy is failing! Something has to be done”. Fortunately, this article is not establishing the failures of democracy. If we are to think of democracy as a tool – merely saying “Democracy is failing! Something has to be done” is like saying “My screwdriver is broken! Something has to be done”. My good friend Martin is a tradesman, and a good one.

If he came to me lamenting over a broken screwdriver, I’d be less than impressed (and very perplexed). In the same way that Martin will fix his screwdriver, it’s up to politicians and polities to ‘fix’ democracy. This article goes beyond the alarmist approaches of many other articles on the subject and looks at practical ways to fix some of the problems currently facing the democratic process. To continue the analogy, and invert the usual defence for inaction: “if it’s broke, fix it.”

The idea of improving democratic decisions rests on an implicit conceptual assumption that ought to be made explicit – the normative evaluation of democratic decisions. Permitting normative evaluations of democratic decisions means that the process of coming to a democratic decision can be made better or worse. Whether a vote is made better through increases in available information, more time to consider alternatives or better understanding of political systems is irrelevant. As I said this is a conceptual point, and one I will avoid getting bogged down in; but I don’t think it’s an assumption that requires too much commitment. It seems intuitively correct that democratic decisions can be made better or worse, in fact, that’s a common reason for disenfranchising children in the first place: giving children the vote will make democratic decisions worse, the argument goes.

The natural next step to ask after establishing that democratic processes can be improved is to ask how is it improved?

An effective way to increase the quality of a democratic process is to increase the political competence of the electorate. If an electorate is more politically competent, they are more likely to engage critically with available political information and come to a carefully considered decision that best aligns with their values and beliefs. Conversely, the less politically competent the electorate, the more likely they are to fall victim to the manipulative devices of political campaigns, such as buzzwords and catchphrases that play on the emotions of the citizens.

Political competence is a relatively common but difficult to pin down academic concept. It has also been referred to as the “franchise capacity”, “epistemic competence”, or “political maturity” by various political theorists. It’s difficult to give an exact meaning, and this is part of the problem that I will return to later. But to put it into a few short words – political competence is the bundle of politically oriented qualities required to make a good democratic decision. Therefore, the more politically competent the electorate is, the more likely they are to make good democratic decisions.

Strategies for increasing political competence

A strategy proposed by the likes of John Stuart Mill is to require each citizen to take a test of political competence before being granted the right to vote. They are only afforded the right to vote if they pass the test. Great. Problem solved. Political competence of electorate raised…check.

The first issue with a political competence test is that it would result in only those privileged enough to afford a formal education gaining the right to vote. Formal education is expensive, and so the electorate becomes a non-representative sample of the country’s most financially advantaged citizens. The financial - and thus educational - elite, are generally more ethnic or gender homogenised than the total sum of citizens. If the electorate is unfairly weighted towards white males, for instance, then non-white males are no longer fairly represented. Left unchecked, this would lead to adverse policy decisions and would reduce the quality of life for many groups outside of a narrow financial elite. This is known as the “demographic objection”, and one that has received excellent and thorough treatment from David Estlund. In his book Democratic Authority: A Philosophical Framework, Estlund makes it clear that, regardless of the potential increases in political competence of the electorate, such a bias towards an advantaged elite would be unacceptable (Estlund, D. 2009).

The second issue of a political competence test is, what are we going to be tested on? How can we test for political competence? Some empirical evidence has been gathered through investigations into the difference in the political knowledge of minors and adults. Political knowledge is almost always tested through questions like “how many people sit in the house of Lords” or “which republican candidates ran alongside Donald Trump?”. I could introduce and discuss different empirical studies; however, this would assume a relationship between political knowledge and political competence. Joanne Lau has rightly asked if the knowledge of political facts is a necessary requirement of political competence (Lau, C.J. 2012). Is it possible that knowledge of political facts doesn’t translate into political competence? Just because I know the answers to specific questions, does that mean I am competent to judge the merits of political parties let alone the complexities involved in putting policies into action.

Imagine a person with a photographic memory, who is also severely narrow-minded, to the extent that they would never change their mind about their original political orientation. In this case, they would have overwhelmingly thorough knowledge of specific political facts, but it seems incorrect to call this person politically competent. The mere testing of political knowledge is not equal to the testing of political competence. Empirical evidence can only go so far due to the unknown relationship between specific types of knowledge and political competence. In actual fact, empirical evidence shows high levels of ignorance about specific political facts in both adults and children, however, as we’ve established, the influence of this on political competence is contested. Any kind of political competence test is going to struggle testing for political competence and not political knowledge, and, as seen in the example above, the connection between the two is unknown. There is the problem of an unknown connection between the two concepts. So, a political competence test is off the table for now.

Ingeniously, Claudio Lopez-Guerra, a political theorist from the University of Richmond, has cunningly sidestepped the demographic objection with what he calls ‘The enfranchisement lottery’. The enfranchisement lottery is a process in which prior to the election, a small but representative group of citizens is singled out and only these are given the opportunity to vote. This group is put through a ‘competence building process’ before the election, and only upon completion of this process can they vote. It’s an interesting theory that deals with the demographic objection to a political competence test. So long as the sample group of, say, ten thousand, perfectly represents the electorate as a whole, then the demographic objection doesn’t apply.

However, the enfranchisement lottery fails to deal with the problem of connection between political knowledge and competence. In the same breath that I asked, ‘what would we be tested on’, I know ask, ‘what would we be taught?’. If we are unsure as to what precisely contributes to increasing levels of political competence, how can we be sure that we are educating people in the correct areas. Lopez-Guerra is aware of these shortcomings and makes no attempt to defend the lottery as a feasible proposal. The fact that the competence-building process would be ripe for corruption from an institutional to an individual level means that political bias will likely permeate the process and unfairly affect the decision of those receiving the education.

While the enfranchisement lottery may deal with the demographic objection, both competence tests and competence building processes suffer from the connection problem. Not to mention the sheer economic cost involved in a competence building process of that size, for relatively unknown rewards. The fundamental issue with trying to make voters better is that there is no guarantee teaching political competence in a classroom style setting will increase political competence. There simply is not enough known about what makes a voter politically competent to attempt such a programme.

Experience is the best teacher

In many things - if you can’t teach someone how to do something, let them do it - and they’ll figure it out themselves. Experience is a valuable learning opportunity. Training wheels for citizenship harnesses the pedagogical effects of experience and applies them to the act of voting. Early age experience of voting benefits the democratic process in two ways:

  1. Early age voting allows children to habituate the act of voting, increasing youth turnout at the polls.
  2. Early age voting increases the political competence of children (without compromising the quality of democratic decisions in the short term).

The first benefit: There is strong evidence to support that voting is a habitual process; the more you vote, the more likely you are to vote again. The act of casting a vote is a gradually acquired habit, and this conclusion is supported by ‘virtually all major works’. Of 516 respondents who said that they voted in both the 1968 and 1972 UK elections, only 3% of these missed the 1974 and 1976 elections. Contrarily, of those who missed the two first elections, over 67% of them did not vote in subsequent elections. Once someone becomes a habitual voter, they are more likely to remain a habitual voter (Plutzer, E. 2002. 42).

The second benefit: The pedagogical effects of voting. If political competence is a difficult skill to teach, then it seems intuitively correct that the next best learning option available is experience. The earlier a citizen can vote, the more practice they receive, and the better democratic decisions they make. This is a rudimentary proposal, and more formal work needs to be done to fully understand the correlation between practice and political competence. However, as has been shown earlier, other attempts at building political competence are either barely feasible, minimally beneficial, or ripe for corruption.

Practice is the most natural form of building political competence, the least costly, and the most likely to be implemented in modern democracy. That is the general argument for allowing children to participate in electoral processes.

‘But, surely, if children can vote, then we would elect superficial politicians, perhaps those who promise free chocolate and sweets at school?’.

This is the most common objection against the proposal of letting children vote, and it’s an understandable one. It is concerned with the epistemic costs of allowing children to vote. As a proposal aimed at increasing the epistemic capabilities of the polity, it’s an understandable worry. However, training wheels for citizenship mitigates the potential epistemic costs of early age voting.

Circling back to the beginning, this is where Senator Vasconcellos’ fractional voting system is a saving grace. To remind you, in 2004, Mr. Vasconcellos proposed affording younger citizens were a fraction of the vote, incrementally increasing as they reach adulthood. I think we can take his proposal further. For example, at 10 your vote would be worth a quarter of a vote, and at 14 this would increase toa half, and at 16 your vote would be worth one whole. Under such a proposal, the political power of the enfranchised children is reduced substantially, and the potential epistemic costs avoided almost completely. More importantly, the pedagogical effects of voting remain.

Children will be able to habituate the act of voting from an early age – likely leading to higher youth turnout at the polls. Since the 1990’s, voter turnout has declined globally, but little has been suggested to remedy this problem. Fractional votes for children offer a promising avenue to solve this problem. Furthermore, if there are pedagogical effects of voting, citizens will have the chance to receive them without negatively affecting the epistemic dimension of democracy. The years of 10-16 are, in essence, a trial-run for the real thing. An opportunity to increase your political competence and become more actively engaged with the democratic process. As far as strategies to increase the political competence of the electorate, it’s difficult to argue that training wheels for citizenship isn’t a far more attractive option than other strategies such as political competence tests, building processes, or enfranchisement lotteries.

Democracy is a tool that every voter wields. Training wheels for citizenship prepares citizens for using this tool, and therefore increases the likelihood that they use it well.

These are the training wheels for citizenship that the late Senator Vasconcellos was aiming for. Far from naïve or ludicrous, his proposal is relevant today - more than ever perhaps. During a period of intense division and political unrest, early age voting could be part of the solution to the generational puzzle of political incompetence.


Estlund, David. (2008). Democratic Authority: A Philosophical Framework. Princeton University Press. Princeton, New Jersey.
Lau, C. Joanne. (2012). Two Arguments for Child Enfranchisement. Political Studies Vol 60, pp. 860-876. The Australian National University.
Plutzer, Eric. (2002). Becoming a Habitual Voter: Inertia, Resources, and Growth in Young Adulthood. American Political Science Review. Vol. 96, No.1. The Pennsylvania State University. Cambridge University Press.