Voters in the great nations of the Western world have never been more confused about what democracy means.
According to the Australian Lowy Institute’s 2019 annual poll on democratic values, older and younger Australians differ. A bare majority of Australians between 18 and 29 years, 55 percent, express a preference for democracy, compared with 68 percent of Australians aged over 30. And 30 percent of 18–29-year-olds say that “in some circumstances, a non-democratic government can be preferable”.
Winston Churchill acknowledged that “democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”. But Gen X is not even paying it this backhanded compliment.
No one has a magic wand to fix this crisis of confidence in democratic forms and representative government. But one idea is worth investigating: universal suffrage.
Don’t we already have it?
No, we don’t. In Australia – and the situation is much the same elsewhere – 20 percent of citizens are disenfranchised. No one under the age of 18 is allowed to vote.
There are movements to give 16-year-olds the vote. A committee of the Australian Parliament rejected a bill introduced by the Greens to lower the voting age from 18 to 16. The David Suzuki Foundation in Canada has backed suffrage for 8-year-olds to ensure the survival of the planet.
A professor at Cambridge University, David Runciman, believes that the voting age could be lowered to six. He says, “You should never, never interfere with the basic principle of democracy, which is one person one vote. And you should never take votes away from people. You get to vote right the way through to the end of your life regardless of whether you are capable of voting or not, and we are fine with that.”
What we need is something far more radical than lowering the voting age to 16, 8 or 6. If “one person, one vote” or, put another way, no taxation without representation, is fundamental to democracy, why not give the vote to everyone, starting at birth?
Votes for babies?
Why not? While it’s commonly argued that democracy makes voters reason about politics, voters have never had to demonstrate that they are rational or even well-informed in order to cast their ballot. Plenty of 18-year-olds, 25-year-olds, 45-year-olds, 65-year-olds and 85-year-olds would fail the test if they had to be examined as they queued up to vote.
If every single citizen had a vote, elections would express the interests of every stakeholder in society, no matter how inarticulate they are. Furthermore, it would break the stranglehold that older voters have on resources. At the moment about 15 percent of Australians are over 65. Politicians listen to them and not to the 20 percent who are under 18.
No, it may be innovative, but it’s not original.
Demographer Paul Demeny proposed the idea in 1986. He saw universal suffrage as a way of boosting birth rates in low-fertility countries – which now means the entire developed world. If the interests of young families were taken into account, it would be easier to legislate for family-friendly policies. As Professor Runciman points out, “Old people are currently the coalition that have a huge inbuilt advantage in representative democratic politics.” Demeny voting would protect the rights of young families.
A few years ago, a Japanese economist and a New Zealand colleague proposed Demeny voting as a way to boost Japan’s declining population. “By issuing debt, we are taxing the future generation, but they have no political representation. (The principle of) taxation with representation seems to be violated,” says Reiko Aoki, of the Centre for Intergenerational Studies at Hitotsubashi University, in Tokyo.
How would it work?
Admittedly, there would be lots of small problems. But every country’s voting system is riddled with problems. Universal suffrage is do-able. The idea is for each parent to cast his or her own vote plus half a vote for each dependent child under 18.
Many teenagers would probably want to vote differently from their parents. Disputes could be resolved within the family. As one British blogger shrewdly observed:
It might make for all sorts on interesting family discussions (or arguments) as the children grow older: demanding that a parent cast a proxy vote for a 16-year-old which might not be in accordance with the desires of that child (as they still would be) would doubtless lead to all sorts of “I hate you” door-slamming, with cries of “That’s so unfair!” and “I wish I’d never been born!” storming out of the house.
But if parents are able to cast votes in proportion to the size of their family – on a scale which reflects their personal and sacrificial investment in the future – might this not be a means of halting the modern madness of social experimentation which risks the destruction of the family and will ultimately cause great damage to society?
On the whole, the votes cast would represent the parents’ rational choices to ensure the best future for their family. Genuine universal suffrage would ensure that people who have invested more in the nation’s future by having more children have more say in its politics.
And from a human rights perspective, Demeny voting is much fairer. The fundamental principle, you will recall, is “one person, one vote”, not “one educated, independently-minded individual, one vote”. In a very real sense an infant of six months with 75 years ahead of him has far more stake in the future than his 75-year-old grandfather with only six months.
Democracy can survive only if the electorate has confidence that the system delivers fair outcomes. At the moment our voting system is heavily skewed towards a gerontocracy. It’s time for a change.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet