Voting, Aging and the ‘Gerontocracy’

According to a Tufts University report on the 2022 midterm elections, “27% of young people (ages 18–29) turned out to vote in the 2022 midterm election and helped decide critical races” in Georgia, Nevada and Pennsylvania, to name a few. This study also revealed that the 2022 youth turnout is likely the second-highest youth turnout rate for a midterm election in the past 30 years, behind only the historic 31% turnout in 2018. And the report found that abortion was a top issue influencing the youth vote, followed by inflation, crime and gun control.

Why start this piece for the American Society on Aging with a summary of the youth vote? Because while their turnout was lower than that of older voters, the issues they care about most are remarkably similar to those of older voters. According to a post-election AARP survey, 61% of voters in the midterms were ages 50 and older. Democratic candidates’ success was due in large part, the survey found, to women ages 65 and older who switched support from Republicans to Democrats between July and November 2022 (Roe v. Wade was overturned June 24). Older women voters’ top issues included inflation and rising prices, which also topped the list of overall voter concerns, followed by abortion, and threats to democracy.

What’s Age Got to Do with It?

But before we celebrate this example of perceived intergenerational connection, let’s note that voting across age groups is inconsistent so we have only a partial view of how younger voters might vote. Also, election reporting and analysis is fraught with ageist perspectives resulting in attempts to slander older elected officials as part of a “gerontocracy” or amplifying campaigns that would require likely illegal and discriminatory “mental competency tests” for candidates who are older than age 75.

We can’t argue with the data—our politicians are older—but let’s look at that other data: Who, exactly, is voting them into office? In 2020, almost 80% of older adults (ages 65–74) voted (10% did not), whereas only about 50% of young adults (ages 18–24) voted, and 30% did not (see Table 13). More than half of Republican and GOP-leaning voters (56%) are ages 50 and older, up from 39% in 1996. Among Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters, half are ages 50 and older, up from 41% in 1996.

Who, exactly, is voting older politicians into office?

Let’s think about this for a second. Is it possible that instead of our “gerontocracy” existing because older adults are hanging onto office with their fingernails to torment younger citizens, the reality is that the people we continue to vote into office reflect the people voting for them? Maybe what we really have here is a voter engagement issue.

In the last presidential election, when President Biden won, 73% of people ages 65–74 voted and 70.1% of people older than age 75 voted. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, voter turnout not only increased with age, but also with educational attainment.

So, in one way, this is democracy working. But in another way it may also reflect ongoing voter disenfranchisement and suppression.

According to the nonpartisan nonprofit FairVote.Org, in recent decades, about 60% of the voting-eligible population votes during presidential election years, and about 40% votes during midterm elections, with 2020 and 2018 marking the highest presidential and midterm turnout in more than a century. But these percentages of eligible voters who participate are low when you consider other democracies around the world. In countries with compulsory voting, such as Australia, Belgium and Chile, in the 2000s voter turnout hovered near 90%. Other countries, like Austria, Sweden and Italy, see turnout rates near 80%. Overall, OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries experience turnout rates of about 70%.

Voting Ain’t Easy for Many

Why aren’t Americans voting? Could it be that our political parties can’t seem to agree on effective policies that would make it easier to vote? According to the Congressional Research Service, issues about when voters receive or cast a ballot, where they receive or cast it, and how they receive or cast it drive discourse on election policy. Election issues are complicated, to be sure. Both right- and left-leaning advocates view voting as a cherished right, but they cannot agree upon which policies will increase and protect votes. Often instead they choose to ignore one another’s concerns.

Right-leaning advocates such as those from Protect Elderly Votes, a project of the American Constitutional Rights Union, advocate for an “Elderly Voting Bill of Rights” that they hope would create an “environment respecting the voting choices of our citizens while making it easy to vote and hard to cheat.” They support making it easier for older adults to be able to vote (including by mail), but seemingly ignore ongoing voting barriers—many steeped in historic racism and codified by law—and other conservatives who fight voting by mail. And many of the policy solutions from right-leaning advocates, such as the “election police,” rely upon the underlying assumption that wide-scale election fraud exists.

‘Left-leaning voting advocates point to the exponential increase in voter suppression tactics.’

While we should absolutely hope and expect accurate election results, we can agree that 100% accuracy is nearly impossible to achieve. But we’re close. A conservative think-tank, The Heritage Foundation’s own database of such known fraud, demonstrates how rare it is. As of November 2022, more than 1,300 proven cases of voter fraud were documented over four decades of research, which “are just a fraction of the 2 billion votes cast in federal elections in that same time-period.”

Left-leaning voting advocates point to the exponential increase in voter suppression tactics, which as the Brennan Center explains is “the modern approach to voter suppression [that] can often be characterized as death by a thousand cuts.” Long-standing organizations, like the NAACP, advocate to make sure the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, which among other things, cleared the way for Black voters to go to the polls without fear, isn’t weakened. Newer organizations such as Fair Fight are effectively raising awareness of ongoing efforts that disenfranchise voters—in voter registration, ballot access, or the counting of votes. Unlike the limited instances of voter fraud, more and more states are issuing rules about “issues like voter ID, mail voting, resource allocation at polling places, and voter roll maintenance [that] add up to create significant burdens, particularly on communities of color,” according to the Brennan Center.

Early readouts from the 2022 midterms indicate that the generations aren’t all that far apart on the issues that matter most. But if older adults truly care about the future of our democracy, they should become the engines of voter drives and engagement, not voter suppression, which will further erode the faith of younger voters in democracy.

Peter Kaldes is the President and CEO of the American Society on Aging.


Photo caption: Americans at a polling booth.