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Democracy Balancing older voters with younger ones

Children to fill the ballot box? It's a concept proposed by the think tank Avenir Suisse. But in fact, it would be the parents doing the voting.


Brexit, the British referendum decision to leave the European Union, has shown yet again that in Western democracies, older people are overrepresented among voters. And Switzerland is no exception.

Ageing is an issue for Avenir Suisseexternal link, a think tank devoted to economic and social themes. On top of traditional topics like retirement and healthcare, it is also looking at the consequences of ‘gerontocracy’ for democracy. In Switzerland, the average age of citizens who go to the polls is greater than the average age of the population overall.

The elderly clearly vote more often than young people. Whereas turnout of under-30 voters averages around 35%, that of septuagenarians hovers around 70%.

In 2015, the average age of voters in Switzerland was 56. That number should soon exceed 60.  

To counteract this overrepresentation, a few days before Brexit, Avenir Suisse published a proposal on its website advocating giving children the right to vote.

From the cradle to the polls

In the Brexit vote young Brits – the majority of whom chose to stay members of the EU – were outvoted by old voters, who voted to leave.

A clear majority (74%) in the 18–24 age group were in favour of remaining EU members, whereas 75% of voters 45 and older wanted to leave. The ‘go’ vote was cast by an overwhelming 83% of voters over age 65.

“Brexit is an example of the disparity we’re afraid of: the old make a decision, and the young have to live with it,” says Lukas Rühli, author of the Avenir Suisse position paper.

It’s not the first time

After the First World War, in France the Catholic right advocated a system built on a ‘family vote’. Fathers were given supplementary ballots for each of their children, in order to stimulate the repopulation of a country decimated by the war. The idea has never died out.

It resurged again in Germany in 2003, with a parliamentary motion giving children the right to vote from birth, in order to stimulate voting by young parents, especially on domestic policy issues.

Interest hasn’t abated. It resurges periodically, sometimes from the Christian Democrats, other times from the left or the Greens.

In Austria, a movement called Kinderwahlrecht jetzt! (Kids’ vote now!) supports the same cause, but is closer to the conservative parties.

In Switzerland, at the time of the 2007 legislative elections, a candidate from the leftwing Green Party launched the idea of a children’s vote. It found an echo among the other parties (except the conservative right Swiss People’s Party), but it never went beyond the discussion stage.

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According to the proposal, the right to vote would be granted to children under age 18, but it would be their parents who actually voted on their behalf, using a supplementary ballot.  That’s perhaps fine if it’s a child of three, who won’t protest, but what if it’s a 14-year-old teenager with their own political ideas, which aren’t in line with those of their parents? Wouldn’t letting them vote on their behalf be an abuse of authority?

“I can understand the objection, but I don’t share it,” says Rühli. “We aren’t proposing that parents directly represent the interests of their children. Parents already have decision-making capacity for their children, and make numerous decisions on their behalf. Those decisions may not always please the offspring.”

‘One person, one vote’

The proposal was not exactly met with waves of enthusiasm. Criticism came from across the political spectrum. In the French-language daily newspaper 24Heures, historian Olivier Meuwly of the centre-right Radical Party spoke of a “return to the old regime”, while the centre-left Social Democrat François Cherix criticised the “ridiculous idea”.

Support was no greater among the youth sections of the political parties, all of whom rejected the idea. “Rights have to go hand in hand with civic obligations,” objected Andri Silberschmidt, president of the Young Radical Party. “From a legal point of view, it’s wrong to allow someone to vote who is not of legal age and thus not accountable. And allowing parents to vote on behalf of their children contradicts the principle of ‘one man, one vote’.”

Social Democrat Jacqueline Fehr, a former member of parliament who serves as the party’s vice president, also supports the concept ‘one person, one vote’. That didn’t stop her from floating a proposal on Facebookexternal link one week after Brexit that calls for a system whereby votes would be weighted: two votes for people aged 18–40, 1.5 votes for people between the ages of 40–65, and one vote for people over 65.    

In Zurich’s daily newspaper the Tages-Anzeiger, the seasoned politician explained that this would not be her ‘preferred solution’; rather, she is interested in stimulating debate. She achieved her objective, but the majority of responses to her Facebook post were not in favour of the idea. Fehr herself – like many of her followers – supports reducing the voting age to 16 years.

Voting rights for graduates

The canton of Glarus took this step in 2007. To everyone’s surprise, the citizens’ assembly gave young people the right to vote on community and cantonal issues from the age of 16. To date, it is the only canton that has taken this step. Many others have considered the proposition, but none have passed it. The last to reject the idea was Bern in 2009, with 75% of voters against.

Andri Silberschmidt, president of the Young Radicals, is sceptical as well. For him, “reducing the voting age to 16 simply to increase participation is just combatting the symptoms of the problem, and won’t change much in the long run”.

He believes that young people have to react differently. “We have to get our own house in order. We have to talk to each other when there’s an important subject, and make an effort to get out and vote.”

That’s a view shared by Flavio Bundi, who heads easyvoteexternal link, an initiative of the umbrella organisation of youth parliaments in Switzerland. Easyvote produces brochures and videos that help 18 to 25-year-olds understand the issues that are being voted on.

The videosexternal link, created with animated drawings in the style of “draw my lifeexternal link”, give a completely neutral account of an issue in three minutes. The goal is to get young people interested in politics and to overcome their inhibitions, according to Favio Bundi.

“But I’m not sure that giving children the right to vote is the only solution. No more than giving 16-year-olds the right. It’s important to get them interested in politics at an early age. But voting isn’t the only way to get involved. There’s also the option of joining a youth parliament.”

Do you think young people's voices should be given more weight in democratic issues? Tell us in the comments section below.  

Translated from French by Jeannie Wurz,

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