Widgets Magazine

A new age restriction

When our society — and thus our government — decides who can and can’t vote, the qualifying characteristics for any individual or demographic are whether they will vote in order to better society based on a generally accepted set of values, and whether they can logically select a course of action that they believe best meets those values.

Our country long ago decided that there are certain people who simply cannot vote. That used to include people of color, the poor, women, and more. There are people whose votes we collectively decide are too dangerous to allow, whose opinions are too far removed from the realities of what a governed society needs to function justly.

We prevent children from voting because we judge that they will not vote according to a desire to better society, and even if they held that desire (rather than merely self-centered impulses and base needs) we judge that they do not have the intellectual capacity to make reasonable decisions based on that desire. In short, they simply lack the experiences we deem necessary to formulate just opinions. Their prefrontal cortexes — the area of the brain responsible for memory management, and reasoning — are not fully functional, nor fully vetted (yet).

We prevent convicted felons from voting because we judge that their decision to break the law signifies a rejection of societal benefit in favor of personal benefit. This may or may not be true for any given felon, but our country agreed that in order to eliminate this potential danger, it was fair to revoke the constitutional rights of those who met a specific standard of societal disregard.

Therefore, in order to protect our country’s political integrity, I propose that a voting restriction on people over a certain age would be as beneficial to our society as our voting restriction on people under a certain age.

As people age, their behavior changes. The reasons for these changes range from chemical to sociopolitical to medical (like senility, impaired cognitive function, and dementia/Alzheimer’s), but the relative conservatism of older people has been well documented throughout the last century. The older people get, the more they tend to rely on stereotypes and prejudices; their attitudes tend to be harder to change, and they tend to place more on value tradition and conformity. None of these behavioral changes are necessarily logical, and they do not inspire progress in a society — in fact, they inhibit it.

Implicit Prejudice

William von Hippel is a psychology professor at the University of Queensland in Austrailia. He claims that the increased reliance on stereotypes and prejudices that people experience as they age is due to the natural deterioration of frontal lobe function in the brain. This area is responsible for separating irrelevant and inappropriate information from pertinent data. As this part of the brain — the prefrontal cortex mentioned previously — atrophies, disinhibited prejudice is more likely to result in bigoted political expression.

After age 65, the chances of developing Alzheimer’s doubles every five years. It develops exponentially. By 85, up to fifty percent of people will show signs of the disease. One element of our justification for barring youth voting is the fact that the brains of teenagers are not fully developed. They don’t function at total capacity until young adulthood. But this issue is as relevant to people over, say, 65 — a number as superficially arbitrary as 18 or 21, as it is to young people.

Unyielding Attitudes

In the years after young adulthood, we tend to solidify a set of values to believe in, and after this point must be moved by external events to change those values. The older we get, the less malleable our opinions tend to be, and the harder it is to abandon a value. While a wanton disregard for the past is of course dangerous, it is even more dangerous to cling unthinkingly to the values of the past. As current events unfold, the new evidence must be considered, with equal or more than equal weight as past events. Loyalty to an ideal can be admirable, but our perceptions must not be stagnant. Accepting new information and changing our opinions accordingly defines the essence of progress.

Tradition and Conformity

Social psychologist S.H. Schwartz is the author of the Theory of Basic Human Values. His theory categorizes values based on the motivation and goals behind them. Schwartz’s research has found a direct positive correlation between age and what he defines as Conservation values.

These values include security, whose goal is to maximize safety and stability; conformity, which aims to minimize violations of social expectation and maximize restraint; and tradition, which above all seeks respect and acceptance of customs and ideas provided by one’s culture. These values work to protect the status quo, to preserve what institutions are in place, and to maintain whatever style of life exists for any given people. And these things are not bad by themselves.

But Schwartz’s research also showed that, as Conservation values increase, openness to change decreases. And without acceptance and motivation toward independent thought, diversity and novel experience, it is extremely dangerous to advocate for maintaining a status quo that is empirically unjust to all parties.

None of these traits of older people are enough to emphatically say, “Anybody who exhibits these traits should not be allowed to vote.” That policy is not only impossible to implement, but also impossible to justify. However, if we bar people under the age of eighteen from voting because we judge that the group as a whole is likely to act unreasonably, based on socially untenable motives, without due regard to the context and impact of policy, how can we possibly justify their older counterparts who are just as likely to act according to those very same reasons? Why should a given sixteen-year-old be barred from impacting policy that will impact their entire life, for reasons that could as easily bar a given sixty-five-year-old from deciding a policy that will affect them for much less time?

The course of our country’s policies — which will and do affect generations to come after the implementers are dead — should not be chosen based on anything other than reasonable consideration of facts. They should not be decided by race bias, or by sentimental attachment to obsolete legislation. We should not go into the future comfortable in the certainty that things function as they always have. It is illogical — and, in fact, extremely dangerous — to accept situations because they promise to maintain the status quo. In order to progress, we as a society must be willing to constantly question our own assumptions.

Contact Maximiliana Bogan at ebogan ‘at’ stanford.edu.