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Andrew Potter: Give younger people more votes
Call it call front-loaded graduated enfranchisement: you start with 10 votes and lose one every decade.
By: Andrew Potter
If there is one thing we’ve learned about our society over the past few years, it is that we do a rotten job of thinking about the future. Whether it is building enough housing stock, preparing for the effects of climate change, or making sure we are ready for a global pandemic, long-term strategic thinking is not one of our strong suits.
There are a lot of reasons for this, one of which is a well-known cognitive bias known as hyperbolic discounting. Immediate or short-term rewards loom much larger in our psyche than larger but much more distant benefits. This bias towards the present is exacerbated by institutional features such as the political system, with votes held every few years, and our stock markets with their quarterly earnings reports. Finally, the steep decline in birth rates and the steady aging of the population means that there is declining public interest, and little political benefit, in looking decades ahead. The result is a significant amount of intergenerational inequality, where the longer term interests of the young are back-burnered in favour of those of the old.
This is a big part of what is motivating the current drive to rethink our voting laws, which currently restrict the franchise to those who have reached the age of 18, the legal age of majority. In one effort, the senator Marilou McPhedran has re-introduced a bill to lower the voting age to 16. In a second, more ambitious project, a group of minors from across the country have filed a suit in the Ontario Superior Court claiming that the voting age requirement is unconstitutional. One of the litigants, a 16-year-old from Nova Scotia named Amelia Penney-Crocker, explicitly made the connection between the lawsuit and climate change: "We have to act now. It's now or never and I think youth are really acutely aware of this much more than adults are," she said. "Because we know that this is our future on the line."
Neither of these gambits has been well-received by the pundits. Andrew Coyne in the Globe and Mail, and Chris Selley and Colby Cosh in the National Post, all did a good job last week of identifying the problems, the inconsistencies, and the wishful thinking behind the idea that lowering the voting age might serve the interests of democracy.
As Coyne points out, the heart of the problem is that the lower-voting-age proponents are trying to square two principles: that of standing, and that of competence. If the question is standing — that is, if the standard for political enfranchisement is citizenship — then forcing people to wait until they are 16 is as arbitrary as 18. Why not then simply abolish the voting age. But if the question is competence, what reason do we have for thinking that 16-year-olds are at all competent to weigh in on matters of public interest? If anything, this looks like an argument for raising it.
The thing to understand about the age of majority is that it isn’t that we’ve discovered that it marks a significant moment in someone’s intellectual maturation. It’s just when we have decided, as a society, to start holding people responsible for their actions. When you turn 18, we can make you do things like pay taxes or go fight in a war; the right to vote is what you get in exchange. Colby Cosh puts his finger squarely on the shoelace here: if you want to be treated as a responsible adult at 16 for the purposes of voting, so be it. But let’s also lower the threshold at which the Young Offenders Act stops applying, or eliminate the stricter labour standards for employing minors.
These are all good arguments against eliminating or even just lowering the voting age. But they don’t do away with the fundamental problem we started with, namely, our inability to plan for the long term and the patterns of intergenerational inequality that inevitably arise as a result of the young having no say.
Coyne comes closest to addressing the issue at the end of his column, suggesting that one way of reconciling the tension between competence and standing would be to give parents a vote on behalf of their children, so a family of two parents and two minors would get four votes in an election. This idea, called Demeny voting, has been floating around for a while, and has found supporters amongst family-focused conservatives, but its central flaw is obvious: Demeny voting might only make things worse, as teenagers see their citizenship hijacked by their parents and just become further disenfranchised and alienated.
Is there anything to be done, then, at the level of political enfranchisement that might address our chronic inability to plan for the future, and the intergenerational unfairness that results?
One possible path to a solution is buried in one of the more serious but rarely discussed inequalities baked into the political franchise, which is the principle of one citizen, one vote — that everyone's vote counts the same no matter how old they are. The ballot of an 18-year-old with 60 or more years to go counts the same as that of an octogenarian who is coming to the close of a long life. Having all votes count the same seems such an obvious way of doing things that it typically goes unchallenged. But why should it be this way? What if we were to weight the franchise according to age, giving the young a much bigger say than the old in how the country runs?
So here’s an idea, which we can call front-loaded graduated enfranchisement.
For the first decade of your life, from birth to age 10, you are assigned 10 votes (or if you prefer, when the votes are counted, your vote is weighted as 10x.) For the next decade of your life, from 10-19, your vote is weighted at 9x. In your 20s, it is 8x, 7x in your 30s, 6x in your 40s, and so on until you (hopefully) reach your 90s, at which point hereafter your one vote counts as one vote, so long as you may live. The young get a much bigger say than the old, but it isn’t a sharp cutoff; your relative franchise declines more or less smoothly as you age, in direct proportion to your expected remaining time alive and your corresponding interest in what happens after you are gone.
Where this gets really fun is how the system can be used to handle the conundrum of competence.
For your first decade on this planet, up to age 10, your votes go to your parents, Demeny-style, who will cast your very powerful 10x vote for you on your behalf. Starting at age 10, you now have 9 votes, which also goes to your parents. But at age 11, you are entitled to cast 1/9th of your allotment, and your parents get the other 8. If you don’t cast a vote, it goes unused — it doesn’t devolve to your parents. If there happens to be an election when you are age 12, you get two of your votes to use or ignore as you judge, and your parents get the other seven. At age 13, you get three while they get six, and so on until you are 19, when you reach full democratic maturity and are finally entitled to all nine of your votes.
An attractive feature of this is that it doesn’t treat competence as an either/or sort of thing. There isn’t a magic date where you go from being essentially a political ward of your parents to a fully enfranchised citizen literally overnight. Instead, it is something that happens smoothly, as you progress out of adolescence into adulthood. Political competence is a process, not a birthday.
In politics there are no magic bullets, and there is probably no single tweak we can make to how we govern ourselves that will fix everything that ails our society and our democracy. But if we are concerned about our inability to think about the long term, and if we are concerned about intergenerational inequality, then some sort of front-loaded and graduated enfranchisement might be the way to go. If it also encourages people to have more children, we can consider that a happily benign effect.
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