One person, one vote. It’s one of the fundamental principles of modern democracy. So why are there people seriously advocating tinkering with the basics – from age-weighted voting to capping the voting age, to raising the voting age, to abolishing voting ages altogether?
There has always been a generational divide in our politics. However, it feels like political divisions between the age cohorts are entrenching; from the February 2020 Irish election, to Corbyn-supporters and Brexit voters in the UK, to Trump-supporters in the US, age is often a determinant of political beliefs. That is why some people want to change the way voting works.
The problem is not going away. Europeans are living longer than ever, and as average life expectancy has been rising, birth rates have also been falling. The trend is clear: the number of older Europeans will continue to rise, while the proportion of younger people falls. Even if young people turn out to vote (which is never guaranteed) the remorseless logic of demographics may see younger generations consistently out-voted by the old.
In the theory, none of this is a problem. After all, younger generations will eventually grow older themselves. However, it becomes a problem when issues operate on longer timescales than electoral cycles, such as with climate change, or when the social benefits younger people stand to inherit are somehow diminished or reduced, which may be the case when it comes to questions such as the sustainability of pension funds, healthcare systems, or the housing market.
What do our readers think? One proposed solution was to lower the voting age to 16, as a way to boost the youth vote. However, our reader Maria thinks that’s a terrible idea because “young people know nothing but just follow Greta Thunberg without question”.
To get a reaction, we took this rather provocative comment to Ashton Applewhite (@thischairrocks on Twitter), an anti-ageism activist and author of the book “This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto against Ageism”. How would she respond to Maria?
That’s an incredibly ageist, and offensive, and patronising thing to say! Any generalisation on the basis of age about a person or group of people like that is the definition of ageism. Younger people experience it as well – and we’ve seen a lot of it with Greta Thunberg, with people saying: “She’s just a kid, what can she possibly know?”, or with the disgusting ad hominem attacks she’s faced, in particular from (shocker) older white men.
To address the climate crisis we need brave and inspirational leaders from every domain, from every country, from every expertise. Greta Thunberg has more than earned her place among them.
For another perspective, we put the same comment to Samira Rafaela, a Dutch MEP with the liberal D66 party. How would she react?
Younger people need to be more involved, and they need to have a bigger and louder voice in the legislation and policies we make. When I was 16, I remember that I could participate very well in complex and relevant political discussions, so I think we should not underestimate 16-year-olds. Instead, I think we should see how it works when we engage them, so I think I’m in favour of a lower voting age. And my own party in the Netherlands have said that we are open to the options when it comes to engaging young people politically from the age of 16.
Next up, we had a comment from David, who worries that “with ageing populations there is the danger that governments make policies that appeal only to older voters”. He asks if an argument can be made for setting a maximum voting age (he suggests 85) as well as a minimum voting age.
What would anti-ageism campaigner Ashton Applewhite say to David’s comment?
That’s the perfect incredibly ageist bookend to Maria’s comment! I think people should be able to vote at 16, and I think people should be able to vote as long as they are able to understand the issues.
Let’s not forget that population ageing is a permanent, global demographic trend. This is the world that David, I assume, hopes to live long enough in to inhabit as an older person. So, we really need to rethink roles and institutions across all of society, and think in terms of equity across the lifespan. Young people need a tremendous amount of support too, because they don’t have assets, because they are raising young children – a society that is good to grow old in, according to World Health Organization’s criteria for ‘age-friendly cities’ – has parks, public transportation, social services. Guess what? That is a community that’s good for all ages.
So, these things tend to be framed as: ‘Why are we spending money on expensive old people?’ when, in fact, we are spending money on things that are good for everyone (including David right now). And, once he’s older, I think he’ll be really glad to see this from a more balanced perspective.
Finally, how would Dutch MEP Samira Rafaela reply?
I mean, that’s not the essence of democracy, is it? We should respect the values of democracy, we are not going to exclude people from voting! People above 85 are equally part of our society and we should respect them, and we should also not forget, as younger generations, that the older generations – our parents and grandparents – I mean, they did a lot for us. Come on. We should also respect and value that.
There is also a question of loyalty, about respecting the elderly, so we should definitely not cap the voting age. We should make sure more young people are engaged in politics so we can find more of a balance. That is the main solution for this problem. The solution is not excluding people. The solution is including people.
Should there be an age limit for voting? Should we abolish age limits for voting completely? Or lower the age limit to 16? Or introduce a maximum age for voting? Or would that undermine basic democratic principles? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!