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Should older people lose the right to vote?

Some have argued that disenfranchising the elderly would allow younger people to make decisions about their future, but is it really that simple?


 
A voter enters a polling station for the Federal Election in Toronto, May 2, 2011. REUTERS/Mark Blinch

REUTERS/Mark Blinch

In Christopher Buckley’s satirical novel, Boomsday, a Generation X blogger and emerging PR star suggests that to deal with the social and economic strain of a large and aging Boomer population, the government should offer people incentives to commit suicide by the age of 70. In addition to being offered perks like free Botox and no estate taxes, those who opt to “voluntarily transition” to death after retirement are to be treated as patriots and heroes on par with veterans. Resistance to the proposal is understandably intense and widespread. But the novel does provoke an important question: What should democracies do when the interests of the elderly appear to be at odds with the interests of younger generations?

One proposal mooted in philosophy circles over the past few decades is to disenfranchise the elderly—that is, eliminate the right to vote at age 70 or some other appropriate upper threshold. The idea is that once citizens reach a certain age, they will be less concerned with our social, political, and economic future than younger generations and much less likely to bear the long-term consequences of political decisions and policies. In that case, their votes ought to be discounted, or eliminated altogether, to ensure that the future is shaped by those who have a real stake in how it turns out. But would disenfranchising older citizens be fair?

Consider two principles of political legitimacy and the way they appear to unravel in the context of intergenerational justice. The affected interests principle holds that those whose interests are affected by political decisions ought to have a say in those decisions. One is a free citizen, the argument goes, only to the extent that one has opportunities to shape the laws and policies to which one will be subject. Without those opportunities, we face a democratic deficit. A second principle—political equality—holds that those who participate and are affected ought to have an equal say in the selection of decision-makers and policies. This is the ideal that the notion of one-person-one-vote is intended to meet.

In the context of intergenerational politics, these principles come under pressure. Decisions made by older generations will affect the interests of younger and unborn generations, but those younger generations will themselves have less or no say. Moreover, as some argue, older citizens have greater incentives to deplete natural resources, underinvest in infrastructure, accumulate public debt and ignore the environment. Polls of top political issues show that concern for the environment and education declines with age. Grandma votes against carbon taxes and recycling programs, and Grandpa votes against education spending? So take away their right to vote and let younger people make decisions about the future.

READ MORE: See the full Ethics Lab archive here

But before disenfranchising older citizens, consider some objections. In the first place, a policy to disenfranchise the elderly rests on some questionable assumptions. Although evidence suggests that seniors sometimes vote in ways that discount the future, younger citizens also vote in self-interested ways that can lead to costs being passed on to future citizens. Support for free university and college tuition, for example, serves younger citizens’ interests but, if financed through debt, effectively passes the costs to future citizens. Similarly, parents who support lower taxes so they can pay for childcare might be as much of a threat to long-term infrastructure investments as seniors voting for more spending on long-term care. For almost every reasonable policy preference, a case can be made that it imposes costs on future generations—even if only an opportunity cost.

Moreover, a proposal to disenfranchise the elderly rests on a rather narrow view of what the right to vote represents. Although voting is a mechanism for expressing policy and leadership preferences, it is also a central means by which democracies recognize the moral and political equality of citizens. Disenfranchising the elderly might eliminate one source of short-term thinking in politics, but would also reduce politicians’ and policy-makers’ incentives to address the legitimate needs and interests of older citizens. So long as older citizens are still living citizens, a fair and legitimate democracy must continue to recognize their political equality and provide them with means to influence decisions that will affect their interests.

Frustration with the policy preferences and omissions of older citizens is a long-standing complaint of younger citizens. Future generations will no doubt continue to shake their heads at many aspects of the world they inherit. The challenge for living, and especially older, generations, is to vote and engage in politics in ways that go beyond self-interest. The challenge is to recognize that although future generations cannot impose costs on past generations, future citizens can and will judge those who lived before them and will have the final say over how we and previous generations will be remembered.

 

Dan Munro is a Visiting Scholar and Director of Policy Projects in the Innovation Policy Lab at the Munk School for Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. Listen to The Ethics Lab on Ottawa Today with Mark Sutcliffe, Thursdays at 11 EST. @dk_munro


 

Should older people lose the right to vote?

  1. At least part of the concern would be addressed if young people just bothered to vote in the same numbers as older people. [Hopefully nobody will now suggest the braindead idea of adopting online voting in order to ‘engage’ younger voters]

    Estimated voter participation by age in 2015 federal election:
    18-24: 57.1%
    25-34: 57.4%

    55-64: 73.7%
    65-74: 78.8%

    See: h$$p://www.elections.ca/content.aspx?section=res&dir=rec/part/estim/42ge&document=p1&lang=e#d1

    • If memory serves, even those 57% figures were historic highs and the 55+ numbers were about the normal participation.

    • Jim R: Are you truly suggesting that more young people should be encouraged to vote? For the most part, these people have little or no political experience, often have never worked and paid taxes, frequently still live with or are supported by their parents, and in general know minimal about the society into which they are entering.
      The current disastrous situation is a prime example of why such a suggestion is not only ludicrous but extremely dangerous for our country. When people vote based on “nice hair” or “family name”, how could we possible expect any better?
      This is not to suggest that the more mature always make wise choices either but at least there is some small chance they know what is going on…

      • Silver Rider: Much of what you say could be extended to many older people who rarely, if ever, left their own county and have minimal experience with the outside world and don’t pay attention to current events. They have little experience with the world outside their little bubble and why should they have a say in how Canada as a whole is run if they only know a fraction of what is even going on in their microscopic corner of it? When people vote on what they are told by their pastor or the party they have always voted for why even ask them? Just because they are older doesn’t mean they have a clue what is going on other than what they perceive benefits them.

        The whole point of democracy is to allow everyone to vote their will and your disparaging how they come about it isn’t helpful.

      • Silver Rider: Many older women never worked outside the home a day in their lives, have no political experience, went directly from living with their parents to living with their husbands who, in some cases, told them who they were to support and their only experience of ‘society’ has been focussed on the kitchen, children’s schools, church and local organizations.
        I’ll never forget the first time I knocked on a door while canvassing for a candidate and the lady of the house told me I’d have to come back when her husband was home because he decides things like that. It turned out she wasn’t the only one.

        • Winter snow,

          You cannot gender roles with the idea that women know nothing. In fact, it was just as likely that they managed to pick up a thing or two to the extent that, once their husband died, they would be able to to look after the finances of the house (if they weren’t already) and start to attend political meetings and discuss politics. But as far as the division between home and public was concerned, yes, very often the woman would be obliged to leave those kinds of decisions to the man of the house, who would be the one to decide how they both would vote.

          Or it might simply have been an excuse so she didn’t have to talk to you.

  2. The article makes some interesting points, but I question the polling results. There were numerous categories where age appears irrelevant. Yes; taxes, environment, health did show a difference between youngest and oldest respondents – 6% – Wow – absolutely disturbing – not. So really this article is trying to create a tempest in a very small teapot.
    As a member of the oldest group, I can tell you that discussions among the elders (that would be the old folks), that I know, revolve around climate change, environmental degradation, lack of job opportunities for youth (you know – our children and grandchildren), democratic government, and the list goes on.
    Yes, health care becomes more of a concern. Yes, some apparently have the strange idea that they shouldn’t pay for the education of children. But no-one I know is not politically engaged. Perhaps that is the crux of the matter. More political engagement by everyone. The elders of this country have a wealth of experience to share and lifetimes of dedication to the betterment of the country.

    • It fascinates me that some seniors don’t think paying for the education of the younger generation is in their self-interest. I want to know that the people who will be the decision makers and those who will take care of me in my advancing years have a solid education. I’d like my doctor, lawyer, pilot, bus driver and all the other people I encounter to know what they’re doing.
      The same goes for those who drive and don’t support good public transit but rant about the traffic they encounter on their daily rounds. People who don’t support decent pay and working conditions for our day care workers, teachers and nurses but are excited to see sports figures paid millions of dollars a year truly mystify me.

    • I definitely agree that we need more political engagement but if everyone you know is politically engaged you are a truly rare person since most people are only as engaged as they can get outraged at something. Around election time they might read a few things just to get up to speed on what interests them, but how many people do you know can name 5 ministers and their portfolios in both your provincial and in the federal government? How many of your friend actually know more than a couple issues that are being dealt with? How many of your friends even know who both their provincial and federal members of parliament/legislature are?

      Political engagement is more than just looking at a few issues that interest you but understanding the greater political landscape and how it affects our current and future wellbeing.

  3. Only if they’re old Cons……hmmm maybe the young ones too. LOL

    Now they’re talking about 16 year olds voting.

    Pretty soon it’ll be from birth to 40!

    But it isn’t the ages that matter….it’s the policies the parties offer.

    Policies that matter to the country…….not some personal payment scheme

    And teach Civics again.

  4. Only if the minimum voting age is raised to compensate. The way the world stands right now I would far rather a group of 85 year olds making decisions rather than the 18-25 crowd. If we could ammend the system to make voting for only 25-70 yr olds, I could deal with that. Otherwise, no.

  5. As someone who is 71 and going strong, more informed about society and politics than many, and who could still pass the Canadian citizenship test, I dispute the assumption–and I believe it’s simply an assumption and not fact–that people over 70 do not vote in the interests of society at large. While this may have been true of my parents’ generation, it is less true of mine.

    I have “a modest proposal” (a la Jonathan Swift) instead: let women have the sole vote and leave men out of it. If you look at the US right now, women are the ones who are fighting to save their democracy in far larger numbers than men, e.g., 86% of the phone calls and faxes to politicians are from women, and many of those women are retired and well into their 70s and even 80s.

    Of course, I’m kidding, but my modest proposal could likely be justified as easily… and as speciously.

    Perhaps a better screening policy would be to require all voters of whatever age to pass a mental stability test, a knowledge test, or some other kind of test that could determine whether they have the requisite qualifications to vote intelligently. Again, I’m just kidding.

    They used to say that when you’re young, if you don’t lean left, you have no heart, and when you’re old, if you do lean left, you have no brain. Balderdash!

    What we need more of is engagement in the political process and the recognition that our votes are crucial to democracy, no matter which way we vote.

    P.S. A personal note to the author of this piece: you will feel differently if you are one of the many who are lucky enough to make it to 70.

    • Of course, I do realize that the author’s opening position is qualified by the later remarks.

  6. No matter how hard they strive for purity and nobility, everyone, to some extent, votes in their own self-interest. Those who chose not to vote are ceding their right to influence the path of the country, province and/or municipality which is their democratic right.
    Rather than taking away the right to vote from people who are exercising it, I think the focus needs to be on educating those who don’t participate. I don’t know what the situation is in other provinces but I was stunned to see that, in Ontario, Civics is a half-course taught at the Grade 10 level. While it is a mandatory course, it is nowhere near comprehensive enough – particularly when there is only one mandatory Canadian History course. People who don’t understand what voting is about are not likely to rush to the polls. If it’s true that people vote out of self-interest, they need to know what that interest is and how they can affect its realization.
    The other problem is the notion that voting doesn’t make a difference and that politicians don’t pay any attention to anyway. If you don’t vote, why would anyone pay attention to you if their continued employment doesn’t depend on you?

    • Learning isn’t a one time event and the education system can’t possibly be the solution to every social problem — that’s the sort of suggestion that becomes the parents that can’t help their children with their homework because it would cut into their drinking time. The more important point is that learning is a lifelong activity especially in any technological area but even politics evolves. If it’s appropriate to talk in stereo-types, young people have little experience of change and experience in change management, consequently, their ability to plot a forward course must be suspect; old folks have plenty of experience in change but also plenty of experience of fads that only seemed a good idea at the time. Evolution is preferable to revolution; in any case, revolution is the stuff of dictators. Of course, the premise that majority rule systems and/or party politics is the only way to run a society is wrong; perhaps collaboration and concensus is a better way to do things, but first, we need to teach politicians to spend less time taking shots and more time on productive work.

    • X moves to Canada as an infant with his parents. He grows up in Canada, is educated in Canada, and lives in Canada to this day. He is a naturalized Canadian citizen.

      Y is an ‘anchor baby’. His parents arranged that he be born in Canada in order to secure Canadian citizenship as a form of insurance. Very shortly after birth, Y’s parents take him home to their homeland. Y grows up in said homeland, is educated there, and lives there to this day. Additionally, Y’s grasp of English and French is minimal to none, his knowledge of Canada non-existent.

      I really fail to see why X should ‘lose the right to vote’ while Y be allowed to. IMO, X is the real Canadian, and Y nothing more than the beneficiary of the ridiculous notion of ‘birthright citizenship’ (jus soli).

  7. Now I know why I cancelled my subscription to this rag Macleans Magazine

    • Macleans is getting kind of long in the tooth. Maybe it should be ‘disenfranchised,’ to make way for younger publications. ;-)

  8. I’ve started to disenfranchise the (all levels) of government as much as I can since they are a drain on resources as much as the elderly are accused of being. Who knows what future generations will do or even the millennials as they start to govern, but they should keep one thing in mind as the transform the world around them, that the next generation will be gunning for them if the millennials gunned for their previous generation and that all depends on if we don’t all kill each other first if push comes to shove.

    • Barry Marshall
      Yes, this hostility towards the baby boomers is actually a constructed one. In fact, it may well be the well-off babyboomers who set this dichotomy up between young and old, knowing that the younger population will blame the poorer members of society on their being a burden on the healthcare system, for example. The truth of that matter is, of course, that it is the wealthier members of society who are reaping the benefits of advanced medical technology. And it’s to their benefit to allow those with fewer resources to drop off the map.

      All in all, the main division in our society is between the rich and the poor. And it will benefit the wealthier millenials if the poorer ones of their cohort side with them against the poor elderly. That is just one way the inherited wealth of the middle classes gets to remain where it is. And that is the problem in society – it is the poor who get blamed. It is not the wealthy older generation who will bear the brunt of the anger of the upcoming generations.

  9. “But the novel does provoke an important question: What should democracies do when the interests of the elderly appear to be at odds with the interests of younger generations?”

    Here’s an equally important second question seems not to have occurred to the writer: Is the first question coherent? No one is categorically ‘younger’ or ‘elderly’–these are temporal (not ontological) distinctions. Whatever the interests of youth and old age might be, they’re your own… and everybody else’s.

    • Mark Kennedy
      The question itself, Should older people lose the right to vote, is nonsensical. It actually does seem another feeble attempt to turn younger citizens against older ones. And as I said before, what that actually means, in our little world, is that it will be the most vulnerable older folk who bear the brunt of that hostility. But that’s the media for you. What are we going to do. They are the ones with the great job, the connections, and the ones granted the right to tell the rest of us their truths, as they see it.

      It wouldn’t actually bother me if I couldn’t vote. Except I would prefer it was my choice not to. I approach elections differently now, with the thought that well, I’m not going to bother to vote this year. I can’t see the point and I don’t know who to vote for. And unless I can finally make a real choice as to how to vote, I just wouldn’t go, not simply to be able to say, I voted. For me now, it has to mean something, and not be just an act symbolic of independence.

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