Age-Weighted Voting

by William_MacAskill 2mo12th Jul 201939 comments

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Epistemic status: I think this is an interesting idea that's worth thinking about, but it would need a lot more investigation before I'd want to endorse it.

If we’re trying to positively influence the long-run future, we immediately run into the problem that predicting the future is hard, and our best-guess plans today might turn out to be irrelevant or even harmful depending on how things turn out in the future.  The natural response to this issue is to instead try to change incentives — in particular, political incentives — such that people in the future take actions that are better from the perspective of the long-run future. As a comparison: the best action for feminist men in the 19th century wasn’t to figure out how best to help women directly (they probably would have failed dismally, especially if they were aiming at long-term benefits to women); it was to campaign to give women the vote, so that women could represent their own interests. 

The trouble with the analogous reasoning when if comes to future people is that, being not-yet-existent, future people can’t represent their own interests. So ‘give future people the vote’ isn’t a viable option.

But there’s an alternative path. Generations overlap, and so by doing more to empower younger people today, we give somewhat more weight to the interests of future people compared to the interests of present people. This could be significant. Currently, the median voter is 47.5 years old in the USA; the average age of senators in the USA is 61.8 years. With an aging population, these numbers are very likely to get higher over time: in developed countries, the median age is project to increase by 3 to 7 years by 2050 (and by as much as 15 years in South Korea). We live in something close to a gerontocracy, and if voters and politicians are acting in their self-interest, we should expect that politics as a whole has a shorter time horizon than if younger people were more empowered.

So one way of extending political time horizons and increasing is to age-weight votes. The idea is that younger people would get more heavily weighted votes than older people, very roughly in proportion with life expectancy. A natural first pass system (though I think it could be improved upon) would be:

  • 18-27yr olds: 6x voting weight
  • 28-37yr olds: 5x voting weight
  • 38-47yr olds: 4x voting weight
  • 48-57yr olds: 3x voting weight
  • 58-67yr olds: 2x voting weight
  • 68+yr olds: 1x voting weight

Later edit: Note that, even with such heavy weights as these, the (effective) median voter age (in the US) would go from 55 to 40. (H/T Zach Groff for these numbers). Assuming that the median voter theorem approximately captures political dynamics of voting, weighting by (approximate) life-expectancy would therefore lengthen political horizons somewhat, but wouldn't result in young people having all the power.


As well as the potential benefits from extending political horizons, I think this proposal looks promising on some other dimensions too:

It would be fair. In this scenario, all citizens get equal voting power, it’s just that this voting power is unequally distributed throughout someone’s life. 

In fact, there are arguments that it would be fairer than the current system. First, it’s fairer insofar as there’s a closer association between who has power over which policies are enacted and who has to bear the benefits and costs of those policies. It avoids scenarios where some people can vote for short-termist policies that benefit them even though they don’t have to live with the long-run consequences. Second, the current system gives less voting power to people who have the misfortune of dying young. The age-weighted system mitigates this to an extent.  Finally, if it does succeed in encouraging policies with better long-term consequences, it would be somewhat fairer to future generations, who are currently completely disenfranchised; though these generations still wouldn’t be able to represent themselves, they would at least be benefitted to a greater degree. 

It would mitigate intertemporal inconsistency.  In the UK’s European Union membership referendum, the voting pattern was heavily correlated with age: older people were much more likely to vote to leave the EU than younger people. My current (poorly informed) understanding is that, in terms of the correlation between age and conservatism, both aging itself and cohort effects play a role. If the latter is significant in this case, this suggests that, in twenty years’ time, most of Britain’s electorate will be in favour of being part of the EU. If so, then a huge amount of time and effort will have been wasted in the transition costs of leaving and rejoining. 

There are, however, a number of open questions regarding age-weighting of voting, including:

  • Do younger people actually have more future-oriented views? 
  • Does extending political horizons by 20 years provide benefits from the perspective of much longer timescales?
  • Are younger people less well-informed, and so apt to make worse decisions? 
  • Is this just a way of pushing particular political views?
  • What would actually happen if this were put in place, and how good or bad would those effects be? 
  • What’s the best precise mechanism for implementing age-weighting voting?
  • What would be the best plan for making age-weighting voting happen in the real world?  

Some brief notes on these: 

Age and future-orientation: One could argue that older people are more likely to consider the long run. They have less at stake in terms of personal interest, so therefore might weigh altruistic concerns comparatively more highly than self-interested concerns. (Imagine, at the limit, someone who was voting on their deathbed. They would only have moral concerns to guide their decision. Thanks to Christian Tarsney for this point). And, in general, voting behaviour isn’t well-explained by the ‘self-interested voter’ model.  However, empirically there’s evidence that generations tend to vote in their self-interest when it comes to issues that have different costs and benefits across time. Here’s Gabriel Ahlfeldt summing up some results from a recent paper

“[O]lder voters are less likely to support measures that protect the environment, promote sustainable use of energy or improve transport. Older voters are also less likely to support expenditures on education or welfare policies, such as unemployment benefits, but they are more likely to support expenditures on health systems. The reasons for these tendencies can be different in every category. But it is difficult to find a singular explanation other than generational self-interest, which would explain why older voters tend to be generally less supportive of expenditures that benefit other generations and projects that have positive expected effects in the long run, but costs in the short run. It fits the bill that where it is harder to think of generational-specific interests such as on questions related to animal protection, women’s rights or urban development, there is also no evidence of a generation gap.”

(Thee authors have a follow-up article here.) However, more work on this seems crucial.

Age-weighted voting and the very long term. It’s hard to know to what extent extending political time horizons by a decade or two provides benefits for the very long term. My initial assumption would be that extending political horizons is somewhat beneficial  for very long-term outcomes, though only weakly so. When I think through particular issues — in particular worries about risks from technologies like advanced AI and advanced synthetic biology that will only be developed in the coming decades — politics having a longer time horizon tends to look pretty good. There is enormous willingness-to-pay to avoid existential catastrophes (over a trillion dollars to mitigate 0.1 percentage points of risk, even just looking at US citizens’ willingness to reduce chance of their own deaths [1]), so if we think technological risks are currently neglected, we need some debunking explanation of why this is so, and myopic political decision-making seems plausible.  But more work on this seems crucial, too. 

Age and wisdom: I suspect that this isn’t a major consideration in the choice between these voting systems: if we wanted a more epistocratic system, we would move quite far away from either of the current system or the age-weighting system. 

But, if we are going this route, there are at least some reasons for thinking that younger voters would make better decisions. Education levels are rising, so younger people are on average better educated; they also have a more recent education, so are therefore more likely to be more up-to-date on contemporary knowledge. The Flynn effect means that IQ scores are rising, and this may be due in part to genuine increases in intelligence (though the Flynn effect has stalled in the US in recent years). As a counterargument, crystallised intelligence increases with age and, though fluid intelligence decreases with age, it seems to me that crystallised intelligence is more important than fluid intelligence for informed voting. 

(Later Edit). Again, we should bear in mind that, even with the approximate life-expectancy weighting, the effective median voter age would move from 55 to 40. So, if we are thinking through epistocratic considerations, the key issue is whether 40 year olds make better decisions than 55 year olds, rather than whether 60 year olds make better decisions than 20 year olds.


Pushing particular political views: One might worry that this proposal would have major partisan consequences — if so, then proponents of the idea might be biased in favour of it if it is a way of sneaking in their favoured political views, and it would decrease political feasibility. And certainly, in the US at the moment, age-weighting voting would cause a one-time leftward swing. But this isn’t true across all generations. From a Pew Research report

“As the Pew Research Center has often noted, it is not always the case that younger generations are more Democratic. Two decades ago, the youngest adults – Generation X – were the most Republican age cohort on balance, while the oldest – the Greatest Generation– were the most Democratic. In 1994, 47% of Gen Xers (then ages 18-29) identified with or leaned toward the Republican Party, while 42% identified as Democrats or leaned Democratic. And members of the Greatest Generation (then ages 67-81) — favored the Democratic Party over the GOP (49% to 42%)”

Other age-related positions can be surprising. Though younger people in the UK referendum were much more likely to vote in favour of remaining in the EU, younger people in the Scottish independence referendum were more likely to vote in favour of Scottish independence. 

Political feasibility: It seems hard to believe that some voters would voluntarily give up power. But it’s happened before via suffrage movements. And there are ways we could taper in the voting weights such that no-one ever has less voting power than they would have had otherwise. Alternatively, we could delay the implementation of the age-weighting, exploiting time biases: if age-weighting only begins in twenty years’ time, then the older generation have little to lose by voting in its favour.


Thanks to Aron Vallinder, Zach Groff, Ben Grodeck, the other Global Priorities Fellows and staff at the Global Priorities Institute for helpful discussion of this idea.


[1] The value of a statistical life in the US is in the range of $3-$9 million dollars. Using the low estimate, among 350 million citizens, the US as a whole should be willing to spend over $1 trillion to mitigate an extinction risk by 0.1 percentage points.

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