Few days ago I've read an article in the local newspaper about Switzerland considering to lower the voting age to 16.

The reason I found it interesting was that it was not one of the old tired political discussions supported by the same old tired arguments that you typically encounter. In fact, it's a question that I have never thought of before.

Apparently, the discussion was triggered by the recent school strike for climate that went quite big in Switzerland. I've attended the demonstration in Zurich and it was not only big, it was really a kids' event. You could spot a grown-up here and there but they were pretty rare. (Btw, I think this movement is worth watching. Here, for the first time, I see a coordination on truly global level. It spans beyong western countries, with events being hosted in Asia, Pacific Islands, South America or Africa.)

Anyway, the main argument for lowering the voting age is to counter-balance the greying of the electorate.

Once again, this stems from what the climate stikers say: "The politicians who decide on these issues will be dead by the time the shit hits the fan. It will be us who'll have to deal with it. We should have a say in the matter."

But the question is broader: As the demographics change, with the birth rates dropping at crazy speed (China's population will start shrinking not that far in the future; Sub-saharan fartility rates had plummeted from 6.8 in 1970's to 4.85 in 2015), the age pyramid is going to look less like a pyramid and more like a column or even a funnel. In such a case the old will hold a much larger amount of political power than they do today.

While that may seem like a minor thing (everyone is young at some point and old later on) just consider how it would affect the politics of, say, pensions or health-care.

Or, for that matter, I hear that Brexit wouldn't happen is 16- and 17-year olds were allowed to vote.

More questions:

With old people being generally more conservative are we going to see slowing or even reversal of the seemingly instoppable move to the political left that was going on for decades?

With high percentage of young males being often blamed for social unrest and wars, is the changing shape of the age pyramid going to result in even more political stability? And how is giving teenagers a vote going to affect that?

I have no answers but the topic is definitely worth thinking about.

(Btw, the voting age was lowered to 16 in canton Glarus in 2007, so there's more than a decade of data to analyse the impact of the measure.)

March 24th, 2019

by martin_sustrik


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17 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 9:31 AM

correlation between improved-decision-making-skills, and moving from being 16 to 18 years old, seems somewhat weak and certainly not as strong as other predictors (education, self-reflection, IQ, etc.). also, it bears asking, why these certain ages - if 16 then why not 15? and if not 16, then why stay on 18 and not move to 19? cause AFAIK, the brain (frontal cortex) stops developing at age 24-25.

I grew up in a democratic school, my experience was that kids were far better at making decisions than the general population gave them credit for. and that it depended more on factors other than age.

anyone who says we should not lower the voting age for reasons of decreased decision making skills, should really ask himself why age based restrictions are OK, and other interventions that are sometimes suggested aren't (like passing certain tests).

the brain (frontal cortex) stops developing at age

What does that phrase mean (if you don't use it as a semantic stopsign)?

"Cortical white matter increases from childhood (~9 years) to adolescence (~14 years), most notably in the frontal and parietal cortices.[8] Cortical grey matter development peaks at ~12 years of age in the frontal and parietal cortices, and 17 years in the temporal lobes (with the superior temporal cortex being last to mature) for women and they have reached full maturity at age 16-17. For men, they become fully mature at age 18. In terms of grey matter loss, the sensory and motor regions mature first, followed by other cortical regions.[8] Human brain maturation continues to around 20[9] to 25[10] years of age."

From Wikipedia

That says nothing about what human brain maturation means and to what extend that happens to be a coherent concept.

No new insights, just trying to say the obvious: Yes, age 18 is arbitrary; there is no law of physics saying that changing it to 17 or 19 would mean the end of the world.

Kids live in a different world. Most of them never had a job, never had to take serious responsibility. In average school they are brought up to believe and obey. It seems like their votes will partially go towards the parent or teacher who shapes their opinions, and partially towards the currently fashionable form or teenage rebellion. (And yes, most of this could be said also about people above 18, e.g. college students or state employees, or adults who take their opinions from media. The argument is simply that no one is perfect, but for an average high school student these pressures are stronger than for an average adult.)

The argument against "people over 60 are the same case as people under 18" is that if you experience strong injustice when you are under 18, you can do nothing about it now, but you can remember it and express your opinion later. People over 60 would not get the same chance.

With high percentage of young males being often blamed for social unrest and wars, is the changing shape of the age pyramid going to result in even more political stability? And how is giving teenagers a vote going to affect that?

There are young people, middle-aged people, and old people. A change "less votes for young, more for middle-aged" could perhaps bring stability, but it doesn't stop there. It will soon become "less votes for young and middle-aged, more votes for old", and then I would expect politics of high taxes (need to get the money for the old people who don't have savings; why not take from those who have less political power) and neglecting long-term development in favor of short-term fixes.

Possibly a backlash afterwards, if the middle-aged people realize they do all the work and have almost no power. In extreme, we will either go the "no vote above 60" way; or if the old people coordinate first and make it impossible, then preference for less democratic forms of government.

We should also expect more of the usual; governments trying to change the demographic curve by importing young people from developing countries, thus adding racial and cultural aspects to the already existing inter-generational conflict.

A progress in medicine (or perhaps a change in lifestyle) could possibly change a lot; it matters whether "old people" refers to a lonely and sick person, or a relatively healthy person with hobbies and social connections.

A skin-in-the-game vote multiplier based on age might look like mean lifespan - your age. That's the logical consequence of saying that people who have to put up with outcomes longer ought to weigh higher in shaping them. It should floor out at around 1 at the upper limit, and the lower limit should come from enforceability of anti-fraud measures (i.e. effectiveness at stopping parents from using kids who can't walk yet for extra votes) instead of from anyone's intuitions about when kids can think for themselves.

If some experts got together and said that brain development, knowledge, wisdom, etc. peaks at N, then you'd want the multiplier to be convex with a max at N.

With functions like these, averages between them, etc. there's a lot of material to play with, in terms of starting with one-person-one-vote and fixing it's weirdness with multipliers.

Maybe the latest in voting theory or the current stage of quadratic voting research already considered all this and came up with something more promising.

A skin-in-the-game vote multiplier based on age

There are two opposing ways to think about it.

You can either, as you do, say that your skin-in-the-game is proportional to the amount of time you have in front of you. From that perspective it seems fair that children should have biggest say in shaping long-term policies.

Or you can say that your skin-in-the-game factor is proprotional to how much you've already invested in the status quo. If you've spent 50 years working towards a goal it seems unfair that a 16-year old know-nothing should be able, on a whim, to throw all of that away.

Both this comment and its parent were helpful to me fleshing out my understanding.

Does having children whose future you care about also count as skin in the game?

Unclear. There's a lot to unpack, because we don't know the 1. narcissism or 2. epistemic competence distributions across parents. I.e., we can't expect that what parents' say are in their kids' interests actually share their kids' interests (either through willful misdirection or through earnest mistakes).

Or you can say that your skin-in-the-game factor is proprotional to how much you've already invested in the status quo. If you've spent 50 years working towards a goal it seems unfair that a 16-year old know-nothing should be able, on a whim, to throw all of that away.

I don't mean to guilt-by-association dismiss this, but it strongly reminds me of the property/land interpretation of SITG-suffrage.

The risk of 16 year old know-nothings throwing things away on a whim is measured against the risk of bad "tradition is the democracy of the dead" / "most insolent of tyrannies is to govern from beyond the grave" scenarios. Which equilibrium is worse, a civilization unable to cooperate across lifetimes (because kids constantly throw everything away and start over, reinventing wheels and repeating mistakes), or one where adults only inherit agency at age 70 and by then all they care about is the same stuff the previous 70+ cohort cared about? I think "epistemically defer to the elderly when it seems wise to do so" is a more beneficial heuristic than "we owe the elderly deference for the sacrifices they made before I was born", and if we're going to bet on the distribution of how responsibly we expect these heuristics to scale, I'd much rather bet on the former.

we don't know the 1. narcissism or 2. epistemic competence distributions across parents

or across non-parents, or old people, or teenagers, or any other group. If we think we CAN measure them well, we should just measure them and set voting standards for individuals, not age-based demographic groups (though I'd be fine with a combo: everyone can vote between 25 and 65, and anyone who passes the competence/non-narcissism/whatever threshold can vote regardless of age).


Not familiar with the term, and Google doesn't show anything that looks relevant on the first few pages of "SITG" suffrage. I assume this is the theory "landholders are the only ones with standing to care about the land, and they happen to be the rich and powerful" idea. If you don't mean to guilt-by-association an argument, then please don't do so.

I dispute the assumption that 70-year olds only care about the same things that the previous cohort did, and not about the things they cared about as 60-year-olds. That caricature is at least as bad as saying 16-year-olds care about the same things that all 16-year-olds have cared about forever (sex/freedom/unearned respect/bad music). I'd argue there's more truth in the latter, but not enough truth to make a valid argument.

I'd also like to point out that dotards select themselves out of voting by not having spare energy to participate. The young and stupid/naive have no such selection mechanism.

SITG-suffrage Sorry, by this point OP and I had established "right to vote weighted by stake" as a concept, using the words "skin-in-the-game", so SITG was an acronym for skin-in-the-game, and suffrage referred to right to vote.

Parents are different from any other group in my comment because I was referencing Richard Kennaway's question "Does having children whose future you care about also count as skin in the game?"

Does having children whose future you care about also count as skin in the game?

As useful lifespans increase, and as humans remain semi-rational for longer, it seems LESS important, not more, to ensure that the young can take the reigns as soon as possible.

It's clear that any voting cutoff is arbitrary, in reality there's a large variation in maturity, scope of thinking (including time and number of others affected), correctness of predictions, etc. There are 12-year-olds I'd rather give a vote to than many 30-year-olds. But if we have to pick an age, it should be the SAME as other adult responsibilities (ability to enter into contract, to be treated as an adult for criminal prosecution, military service, taxation, etc.). Alternately, you can vote when you file taxes and nobody claims you as a dependent. _Starship Troopers_ takes it a bit far, but there's a reasonable idea behind the hyperbole - adulthood and responsibility isn't based solely on age.

Disclosure: I remember being a youngling and wishing these old folk would give me the credit/authority/respect I deserve, but I am now one of the olds that previous-me resented. I may well be biased in my preference to take the longer view, and for the young to mature a few more years before making any major decisions.

But if we have to pick an age, it should be the SAME as other adult responsibilities

Why that?

Here in Israel not even all voting is on the same age limit - elections for government are from 18, and municipal elections are from 17.

Why that?

Maybe not all other adult responsibilities - I can see a good argument for bringing on responsibilities slowly, with voting toward the end. But it's really difficult to disallow voting on topics that affect earlier-granted responsibilities (cf US voting age reduction in response to military draft). Simultaneity solves that.

To the extent that voting matters, it should be done in a considered fashion by people who are able to apply long-term thinking. At the very least, by people who know they're responsible for long-term outcomes, and know what that means. The best way to tell people that they're making adult decisions and this is one, is to grant it similarly to other adult rights/responsibilities.

(aside: I'm somewhat amenable to the argument that voting exists only to pacify the electorate, so it should be granted to anyone who might otherwise revolt, and it's a fine training ground for children's future learning of responsibility. But that's not my default position - I generally think that voting is an exercise of authority, not a practice for more important things).

Another example is the Scottish independence referendum 2014 where 16 & 17 year olds were allowed to vote for the first time. Apparently in general the younger someone was the more likely they were to vote for independence but those <24 reversed that trend.


I’m skeptical that 16-17 year olds would have changed the Brexit result given that Leave won by 1.3 million votes and the are only 1.5 million 16-17 year olds in th UK. Roughly eyeballing the numbers allowing 16-17 year olds to vote might cause a 1% swing towards remain so it could make a difference if a second referendum is called.

If there's a minimum voting age, I think there should also be a maximum voting age. Sufficiently old people suffer from cognitive and physical decline, frequently to the point of dementia, and can be as vulnerable to manipulation or coercion by their caretakers as children are to their parents. It seems entirely reasonable to me that people over 80 should not be allowed to vote.

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