Should People Over 70 Lose the Right to Vote?

Older citizens made sure their votes counted in the 2016 election — because they actually showed up. . (Photo: Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/AFP/Getty Images)

In 1729, Satirist Jonathan Swift made "A Modest Proposal" that the "impoverished Irish might ease their economic troubles by selling their children as food for rich gentlemen and ladies. This satirical hyperbole mocked heartless attitudes towards the poor, as well as British policy toward the Irish in general."

In 1970, Douglas Stewart, a university professor in California, was upset by the rise of Ronald Reagan and suggested that perhaps there were too many old people moving to California and voting. He made a modest proposal of his own, writing a controversial article in the New Republic titled "Disenfranchise the old":

The vote should not be a privilege in perpetuity, guaranteed by minimal physical survival, but a share in the continuing fate of the political community, both in its benefits and its risks. The old, having no future, are dangerously free from the consequences of their own political acts, and it makes no sense to allow the vote to someone who is actuarially unlikely to survive, and pay the bills for, the politician or party he may help elect.... I would advocate that all persons lose the vote at retirement or age 70, whichever is earlier.

Now as a baby boomer within two elections of that "best before" age, of course I'm shocked and appalled at such a suggestion; it's ageist and discriminatory, and boomers and seniors have so much to offer.

But Stewart has a point. What he saw in California in the '70s is playing out in America today. The boomers and the older voters won the presidential election (although Donald Trump did win among young white people without a college education). I noted in an earlier post,

And as I predicted, the millennials did not show up in anything like the numbers the boomers and seniors did, and the current government is doing everything in its power to turn back the clock, to reduce taxes on the rich baby boomers, to remove regulations that protect the environment for generations young and yet to come, so that extractors and developers can make money now.

In effect, the older voters get to keep what's theirs and leave the mess for the kids to clean up.

medicaid spending
Predictions for Medicaid spending over the next few years. (Photo: Avalere Health analysis)

You can see this happening plain as day with the new Trumpcare act working its way through the Senate, one that dramatically cuts funding for Medicaid. Note the shape of the spending curve for the aged — it goes up and then down, so that the impact on older voters isn’t felt for a decade, when many might well be dead. Because as Reagan noted, "You dance with the one that brung ya."

'Kicking the can down the road'

You can see it happening with debt and the way governments are run. Sayyajit Das writes in Bloomberg about how we're living today at the expense of tomorrow:

The prevailing approach to dealing with these problems exacerbates generational tensions. The central strategy is "kicking the can down the road" or "extend and pretend," avoiding crucial decisions that would reduce current living standards, eschewing necessary sacrifices, and deferring problems with associated costs into the future.
NIMBY sign
Not in my backyard!. (Photo: Peter Blanchard/Flickr)

You see it happening in cities and suburbs around North America, where older voters reject initiatives to build transit, increase density or install bike lanes in favor of NIMBYism, resistance to change, and maintaining the right to drive a big car anywhere and to have free or cheap parking when they get there.

I've argued in the past that millennials have nobody to blame but themselves if they don’t show up and vote, but that’s not entirely true; the older people in charge have made it very difficult for them to vote and have gamed the system. And once they have that power, they use it. Daniel Munroe discusses the issue in Macleans:

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.

Munroe concludes that this is perhaps a bad idea.

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.

And in the end, it's probably a moot point anyway. According to Ronald Brownstein in the Atlantic, the next presidential election in 2020 is going to be the first since 1974 in which the baby boomers are not the largest cohort, where millennials will be 34 percent of voters while boomers will shrink to 28 percent. Only half of eligible millennials voted in 2016; one suspects that in 2020, they may be older, wiser and more engaged.

yum, painting of saturn eating one of his kids
Saturn may have been more grotesque about it in Goya's famous painting, but what's happening now isn't that different. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

They had better be paying attention, because as Sayyajit Das so elegantly put it:

Future generations will bear the ultimate cost of present decisions or inaction. As in Francisco Goya’s famous painting, “Saturn Devouring His Son,” today, the old are eating their children.

Editor's note: This post contains some opinion. MNN writers sometimes veer into the opinion sphere when it's an appropriate way to delve deeper into a topic. If you would like to respond, reach out to the writer on twitter or send your comments to