Future Tense

Claremont v. Florida

A new short story imagines a wild court case about voting rights for teenagers.

Colorful poster illustration of a child with voting stickers.
Brian Miller/Smithsonian | Download PDF

How can portraying the future help us prepare for it? As part of the Smithsonian’s upcoming FUTURES exhibition, the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building (AIB) collaborated with Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination to bring together museum experts, cultural and research centers, writers, and artists to help answer that question. Then acclaimed sci-fi writers Tochi Onyebuchi and Madeline Ashby wrote eight stories—four each—based on that work. In the story below, Ashby imagines the world of 2071, where judicial cases around climate migration, religious freedom, and criminal justice reform have opened the voting booth to younger citizens.

Advertisement

Join Future Tense, AIB, and the Center for Science and the Imagination on Tuesday, Nov. 9, at noon Eastern to discuss the exhibit, the pieces, and the roles museums play in depicting future narratives. RSVP here.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Dawna rubbed her eyes. “OK, what’s next?”

Jay toggled over to the next pane. “Claremont v. Florida.

Dawna beamed. “I like this one.”

“Everyone likes this one.”

“Does that mean you want to take it, or should I?”

“Why do we even have to cover it? Everyone knows this case. Everyone.”

Dawna jerked a thumb over her shoulder at Vi. “Vi’s from North Carolina.”

Jay frowned. “Wait, really?”

Vi threw horns. “Go Devils.”

“I could have sworn—”

Dawna made the universal gesture for shut up, and looked over at Vi. “Vi, I think this means you should take it.”

Advertisement

Vi rolled their shoulders. “OK. But you have to stop me if I get something wrong.” They took a delicate sip of something sweet, and began: “It started in Miami-Dade County.”

“It’s always Florida,” Jay said.

“Oh, do shut up,” Dawna said. “Please go on, Vi.”

“Kyanite Claremont was 15 when Hurricane Hecate displaced her and her family. They were evacuated as climate refugees to Nebraska for a period of six months, and had no set return date to their original residence. Their plan was to allow Kyanite to finish the school year in Nebraska. While there, Kyanite was automatically enrolled at school for early voter registration for an upcoming election.”

Advertisement

“And why did Nebraska allow her to register so early?”

Advertisement

“Nebraska was piloting a program to maintain numbers of young residents that included early enfranchisement. The program proposed allowing voters to register at 15 years of age, with state voting rights instantiated at 16, similar to the graduated licensing standard. The logic, said local legislators, was that teens who saw the impact of their vote would be more invested in their communities, and therefore more likely to stay in those communities—to attend university or community college there, to pursue a trade, to maybe, just maybe afford a house and a baby one day and boost the states’ congressional representation. State universities got in on the idea: they promised a bump up the admission consideration queue for preregistered voters. This was later contested by private universities.”

Advertisement
Advertisement

“We should study that, too,” Jay said.

“Hush,” Dawna said. “Let her talk.”

Vi continued: “Kyanite had already turned 16 before the election. She met Nebraska’s standard. But when Kyanite returned to Florida and tried to vote absentee in the state of Nebraska, the elections department of Miami-Dade County refused to process her ballot because she wasn’t of legal voting age in the State of Florida. Since the eradication of the U.S. Postal Service, county elections departments had created what they called ‘clearinghouses’ for all ballots—including absentee ballots, which they cured before sending to other states. But Kyanite’s ballot was never cured, and never sent to Nebraska, because she was underage in Florida.”

Advertisement

“This being the first time in Florida’s history that being underage has stopped anyone from doing anything,” Jay sniped.

Advertisement

“The State of Florida claimed that because the election was federal, Kyanite’s ballot was fraudulent. The Claremonts claimed that because the State of Nebraska had developed a new style of ballot for the newly registered voters in their pilot program, Kyanite had only voted the slate to which she was allowed access in Nebraska: state and local matters. But there had been errors wherein young Nebraska voters still received federal ballots, in addition to the local ones, and on those grounds, Florida threw out the ballot.”

“Could anyone check Kyanite’s ballot to see if she’d received the wrong kind?”

“No. It had been thrown out. All attempts to find it failed. This was why she sued. She claimed that she had done nothing wrong, and had been disenfranchised by one state simply for having been granted the franchise in another.”

Advertisement

“How did the case make it so high up in the courts?”

“For one, voter registration had become the third rail of Florida politics. It was endless circle of debates, like a python slowly gorging on its own tail, about the security risks of online voting infrastructure versus preserving the franchise of an ageing and disabled population made more vulnerable by rising tides, endless hurricanes, and seemingly immortal mosquito populations carrying lethal disease.”

Advertisement
Advertisement

“I like that python detail,” Jay said.

“Stop interrupting,” Dawna said.

“I’m being supportive!”

“What the judges in the 11th Circuit didn’t know was that Kyanite Claremont was a member of Sunrise, a nationwide ministry whose signature legislative agenda was an attempt to recognize 17-year-olds as legal adults. Sunrise Ministries preached that life began at conception, and funded multiple studies on prenatal care and epigenetic stressors suggesting that the uterine environment was just as important to brain development and general health outcomes as access to sufficient care in early childhood. That’s how it got kicked up to the Supreme Court. It was a First Amendment challenge.”

Advertisement

“Tell us the opposing perspective at the time,” Dawna suggested.

“Now who’s interrupting?” Jay asked.

Vi took a deep breath. “Critics suggested that any push for legal change to the age of majority was simply a way for the group to skirt existing laws regarding the age of consent, legal marriage, and state education requirements. Sunrise responded that the Vatican itself had an interdisciplinary working group whose sole focus was to draw a line between human personhood and that of artificial intelligence, and the group had reached similar conclusions regarding human development. These were published in multiple white papers and encyclicals, all of which were reviewed by medical journals like JAMA, allowing other labs to conduct similar experiments with developing neural networks. It was cutting-edge science that had revealed the possibility of prenatal personhood, not a special interest group.”

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

“Very nice,” Jay said, miming applause. “Shades of Bryan, there. We should get you some suspenders.”

“Yeah, you’re doing great,” Dawna added.

“Thanks to their involvement in Sunrise, the Claremont family had access to a nationwide network of supporters who were happy to fund Kyanite’s case. The case challenged Kyanite’s disenfranchisement on these grounds: Her assertion of adulthood was itself an act of political speech rooted in religious faith, and therefore doubly protected. Adulthood, Claremont’s legal team argued, was an issue of identity, and therefore only Kyanite was fit to judge her capacity for its attendant responsibilities. Age could be determined by the passage of time, yes, but maturity could no more be imposed on or granted to an individual than sexuality, faith, or political inclination. And, they argued, the experience of adulthood was likely to change in an environment in which youth bore the outcome of climate-based legislation with none of the legal responsibility for deciding it.

Advertisement
Advertisement

“Moreover, said Claremont’s team, ‘childhood’ itself was a social construct, and a relatively recent one at that—more relevant as a marketing category than a legal one. The Framers had every opportunity to clearly define adulthood in Article II of the Constitution when enumerating the criteria for the leader of the free world, but chose instead to focus on defining citizenship. If thirty-five were the magical age of enlightened decision-making, they argued, then why not grant federal voting rights at 35, not 18? Further Amendments concerning the vote (including the 26th) did not define adulthood, but simply conferred a single right of citizenship to those 18 years or older who otherwise met the criteria. Almost all other rights of citizenship were conferred at birth. Claremont’s team argued that given the rapid pace of climate change, the rights afforded to young people didn’t match the responsibilities expected of them. And since a test of intelligence—or income, social score, land ownership, or military service—to determine access to the ballot would violate the Equal Protections Clause, and since the state already relied on individuals to determine their mental soundness in all other respects, asking individuals to determine their adulthood was natural.”

Advertisement
Advertisement

“And how was Florida unique in this regard?” Dawna asked, imitating the proctor voice.

“Florida, in particular, had been charging youths as young as 14 as adults for certain crimes in criminal court since 1978, and could transfer any 16-year-old to adult court in felony cases. As such, Kyanite and other legal minors were beholden to the political community without being recognized members of it. If there was no floor, Claremont’s team argued, there could be no ceiling.”

“So what did Florida say?” Jay asked.

“The State of Florida argued that changing the definition of adulthood to a personal metric rather than an objective one would open the door to scores of individuals defaulting on mortgages and other responsibilities after they declared themselves puer in esse, or ‘young at heart.’ Identities change, they said. And if adulthood were an identity, Florida argued, there was nothing to stop adults from shedding it. Further, establishing adulthood as a negotiable legal category would allow unchecked abuse of children coerced to declare themselves adult: laws prohibiting child marriage and child labor would be defanged instantly.”

Advertisement
Advertisement

“So that was an end-run to change the voting age by changing the definition of adulthood. But there were other efforts to lower the voting age. Was Florida the first state to grant minors the right to vote, after all?”

Advertisement

Vi beamed. “No. That was Nebraska. Based on the state’s pilot project, the Nebraska Senate passed legislation a day before the Supreme Court handed down their verdict on Claremont. So technically, they were the first.”

“And that is the question on the exam that everyone misses,” Dawna said, checking it off the list.

“Because they all think it’s Florida,” Jay explained. “And because the Nebraska story is really boring.”

“It’s not boring,” Vi protested. “The bar exam itself is what’s boring.”

Advertisement

“You only think that because you’re 15,” Jay said. Jay clicked his claws together. They were an older model, not as well-articulated as they could be, but handmade by a local artisan. He preferred a more distinctive body plan over a branded identity. “When you’re a crotchety old man like me, you’ll find it more interesting.”

“Aren’t you, like, 17?”

“I turn 18 next month!” He gestured at his carapace. “I’m almost a real old-fashioned man!”

“You’re a real something, all right,” Dawna said. “Next?”

This story is a piece of near-future science fiction, but is inspired by the real-life work and historical research being conducted today by Jon Grinspan at the National Museum of American History.

Read the rest of the AIB-inspired stories on Future Tense here, and download the full poster here.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

Advertisement