Too Old To Vote?

As the population ages, could senile voters possibly decide the election outcome in future?

by Gordon Campbell

On a regular basis the media keeps reminding us that (a) young people are growing up too fast and are facing adult challenges about jobs and sexuality too soon while (b) the general population is rapidly ageing, as the boomer generation born between 1946 and 1960 heads into retirement. Few of us are relating those two trends back to the voting system, though perhaps it may be time that we did.

Because if young people are being sexualised and are facing worse job prospects and inheriting major national debt problems earlier than any other generation in the last 50 years etc – then arguably they should be given a voice somewhat sooner, on who should be running the country, and how. As the boomers head into retirement, perhaps we should also think about how and when they should start to lose the vote… Sometime at least, before a sizeable portion of the voting public slides into senility, en masse.

Putting those trends together could well mean that we can’t continue to deny 16 and 17 year olds the vote on the basis of say, their allegedly immature cognitive functions. No doubt, the scientists are right when they say that the human brain doesn’t fully develop until the early 20s. Yet clearly, that isn’t the current basis for earning and keeping the franchise. After all, if we want to make cognitive function the essential qualification for getting and keeping the right to vote – then how about those ageing boomers ? Should they still be allowed to decide the outcome of elections, even after they have begun to lose their mental grip? Any such change would not happen without a fight. Think of how firmly the boomers are holding onto their pension entitlements right now. Would they voluntarily give up the right to vote ?

Luckily, I don’t need to consider the legal and moral implications of this situation entirely in isolation. In the latest issue of the New Zealand Law Review, Jonathan Barrett traces the history of the franchise in this country when it comes to adolescents, and the ethical and practical issues raised as the voting public gets markedly older. Barrett’s article is called “ The Young, The Senile and the Franchise” but unfortunately, since it is not available online, so I will need to précis the content somewhat.

Even before he gets to the heart of his subject, Barrett provides some surprising information. I didn’t know for instance, that it is legally possible to claim assistance in the act of voting. “Electors who cannot complete the ballot because of vision impairment, illiteracy or lack of English language skills,” Barrett says, “may nominate a person to assist in the mechanical process of ballot marking.” This extends to circumstances where, quite legally, the helper can even mark the ballot for the voter, according to their instructions. What is essential is that the “ will and cognitive capacity to vote” exists, and it is only the ability to deal with the mechanics of the ballot that is lacking. At both ends of the age spectrum, at what point does that “will and cognitive ability” to vote responsibly come to fruition, and at what point can it be said to no longer exist?

Essentially, what’s at stake here is the value that society places on voting – if it is viewed as merely being able to tick a box, then no great cognitive ability is required. If however it is seen as an expression of citizenship that is expected to emerge from a process of evaluation and the weighing of policy options in terms of personal and national good, then a higher level of cognitive functioning should reasonably be expected. What should happen when that no longer exists?

Voting and the Young. New Zealand reduced the voting age to 20 in 1969, and reduced it once again to 18, in 1974. In 2007, as the follow up to her successful campaign to change the legislation on child discipline, Sue Bradford turned her attention to extending voting rights to 16 and 17 year olds. It was, in her view, a logically related justice issue about the rights of the young, and the merits of social inclusion. Therefore, Bradford’s proposed Civics Education and Voting Age Member’s Bill chose to frame the rationale in a way that the US Founding Fathers would have understood. Namely, that there should no taxation without representation – or, as the explanatory notes to Bradford’s Bill put it :

Such young persons are paying tax on what may be quite substantial full time earnings, but have no ability through Parliamentary representation to elect those who determine both the level of income tax and other taxes they pay, or the manner in which tax revenue collected from them is expended.

The emphasis on civics education conveyed by the title of Bradford’s Bill was not accidental. Mindful of the likely public opposition to extending the franchise to young people, Bradford was adamant that this step should proceed only in parallel with an education programme aimed at informing and educating young people on how to use the vote responsibly. In that sense, the Bill would not only foster greater awareness of the rights and duties of democratic participation. It could also assist in boosting the low turnout rates by young voters at election time, and help to transform the act of voting into a lifelong habit. However, in the face of strong opposition both from within the Green Party and beyond it, Bradford withdrew the Bill altogether.

The inconsistencies that she spotlighted remain today. Society is quite incoherent when it comes to the age at which the young are deemed ready and able to handle responsibility. At fourteen, teen offenders are considered capable of being responsible for their criminal actions. Sixteen is the age of sexual consent and when people can marry and have children. Sixteen is also now the age at which the young are felt competent to be put in sole charge of a potentially lethal automobile. At 17, the young can also join the armed forces and make life and death decisions about themselves and other people. Can the act of voting really be so much more fraught than this?

On the other hand…..society also decrees that people cannot gamble, buy cigarettes, see certain films, drink in a bar, buy alcohol from a liquor store or sign legally binding contracts until they are 18. The inconsistencies are rife and as Barrett says, are widely tolerated. For now, it seems clear that society – and those politicians aware of the almost toxic levels of hostility to the young felt by large swathes of the voting public – feel no inclination to lower the voting age for reasons of fairness, or logical consistency.

Are there any other solid grounds for doing so? Barrett chooses to side with the 1986 Royal Commission on Social Policy, which concluded that if young people “ are to be included as part of the community, the only justification for excluding them from voting must be lack of cognitive competence.” At which point – and despite what the neuroscientists say about the age of maturation of the brain sectors responsible for moral evaluation and impulse control – one also has to concede that the mere act of casting a vote is not rocket science. ‘To vote,’ Barrett points out, ‘all people need is to be capable of deciding for themselves who should represent them and form a government.” As he concludes, there is little doubt that 16 and 17 year olds possess the cognitive capacity for that task.

The fact that few 16 and 17 year olds seem to be agitating for the right to vote is a bit of a red herring. Relatively few adult Americans are enthusiastic about the right to vote either – and many don’t bother – but that’s not a reason for denying them the opportunity. Perhaps when and if Bradford returns to Parliament with the Mana Party she may feel inclined to dust off her Members Bill, and have another go.

The Issue of Senility If the yet to fully mature brain of the average 16 or 17 year old really did justify withholding the vote until 18, then arguably….the same exclusionary logic should apply at the other end of the age spectrum as well. Yet there is no groundswell for excluding people from voting on cognitive grounds, as their brain function begin to decay. As Barrett points out, there are some existing exceptions. For no good reason, people who have been compulsorily detained by the state on grounds of mental illness for more than three years, automatically lose the right to vote. “Exclusion here, “ Barrett says, “appears to be a disproportionate, and thus unjust, punitive measure designed to put detainees in a similar position to prisoners…”

Unless they have been detained for three years or more, the mentally ill within the community can register to vote and – as explained above – can also seek and receive assistance from others, to cast their vote. Fine. Voting may well be helpful to their wellbeing, and may enhance their sense of inclusion in the community. Yet, as Barrett says, such an inclusive approach to mental incapacity is significant for a country that has an ageing population. Especially so, one might add, when the cost of National Superannuation and the rising cost of healthcare for the elderly are likely to be hot political topics in future, and vitally affect the age cohort in question.

Already, older age groups are relatively more inclined to vote. Over the next few decades, self-interest is likely to enhance that tendency. Along the way, there will need to be matching investment in the infrastructure required to meet the voting needs of the aged, with more helpers needing to be assigned to the ballot booths, and more ballot booths physically located within the nation’s retirement homes.

None of this directly addresses the question of senile dementia – and here, Barrett offers some sobering statistics. “ A person over 80 has a 20 % likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease. It is estimated that by 2050, some 147,000 New Zealanders of a projected population of 4.6 million will suffer from dementia (mostly Alzheimer’s.) ” That is almost the double the projection of 75,000 similar sufferers in 2026, and 3.5 times the 41,000 (in a population of 4.3 million) in 2008.

That marks a significant shift, to numbers that could be politically decisive. They also raise a point of principle. As Barrett puts it : “Allowing people with cognitive impairments so severe that they are unaware of the very nature of the process in which they are participating to vote, may challenge the concept of voting as a rational act, and facilitate electoral fraud.” Thankfully, not everyone with Alzheimer’s is so impaired as to be unable to grasp the purpose and process of voting. Yet far larger numbers than what society is presently accustomed to encountering, will become significantly impaired.

Unfortunately, it is not evident that this situation can be managed in ways that guarantee the aged will be treated with dignity. History doesn’t give us many – or any – encouraging examples of how to administer the relevant tests, nor give us many pointers on how to manage the crushing consequences of failure for people deemed to be cognitively incompetent.

In concluding his article, Barrett warns against society treating the situation of the young and the senile as being analogous – regardless of the surface logic that if a presumed lack of cognitive capacity in 16 and 17 year olds bars them from voting, it should do likewise for the old, if and when their mental faculties start to desert them.

Why should we treat these two groups differently ? Well, so the argument goes, young people can probably handle it, and they will get older, and will be able to vote eventually. For older people, it is a one-way street. As Barrett says : “ For people engaged in an existential struggle, as their brains degenerate through disease and their powers of ratiocination haphazardly wane, to be deemed worthless as citizens would surely be a devastating affront to their dignity.” No one wants that outcome. Even so, the problem cannot simply be ignored, or willed away on compassionate grounds. “ Inclusion of an increasing body of senile people in the electorate,” Bareet says, “ is not an issue that can be ignored, but nor can exclusion of the capable young.”

The ideal outcome would be a greater degree of compassion and tolerance for young and old alike. Currently though, New Zealand seems to suffer from a fairly bad case of ephebiphobia, or the fear and resentment of the young. In this election year for example, 16 and 17 year old beneficiaries are being singled out for punitive action and control by the government – almost entirely for populist reasons of electoral gain – and without having a vote on the matter.

In stark contrast, the age of entitlement for pensions and the current superannuation payment levels remain politically untouchable, regardless of the cuts to public sector jobs and reductions in social services being promoted for everyone else. This situation is not going to be sustainable. Today’s 16-24 year olds are being expected to support the voting rights, the health needs and the dementia care of an older generation that seems happy enough to treat them with something close to disdain, or as fitting experimental subjects for welfare reform.

If only out of sheer self interest, a bit more respect by adults and a few more policies of social inclusion is advisable. Extending the franchise to 16 ad 17 year olds might be a good place to start. Ultimately, that might help to ensure that the senile get treated with more compassion, when the time comes.