Britain’s endorsement of Brexit late last month has sparked a (sort of) discussion about the value of certain individuals’ votes depending on their age. Many millenials took to social media and other platforms to express their frustration that older members of the electorate had decided their future and the future of the country by voting “Out” whereas the younger age cohorts had backed Remain.
Lord Ashcroft’s post-referendum survey of 12,389 voters revealed the extent of this generational divide. Whereas 73 percent of 18-24 year olds voted in favour of remaining in the EU, those aged 65 plus voted 60-40% for Leave. Sixty-two percent of the 25-34 cohort voted Remain but a majority of 45-64 year olds voted for Brexit.
Many young supporters of Remain were angry because, as they saw it, the young have longer to live with the potential negative long-term impact of Brexit.
Firstly, it should be pointed out that in this referendum, younger adults failed to turn out in numbers comparable to their older counterparts. Secondly, nobody knows what the future consequences of life outside will be, so how can anyone say at this moment in time whether the country will suffer as a result of this decision?
Surely one of the finest qualities of democracy is that every vote cast is equal, in the sense that additional weighting is not given to someone on the basis that they are a billionaire, or a worker on minimum wage, male or female, young or old. Furthermore, in a referendum all votes count whereas in general elections under our majoritarian, first-past-the-post voting system, it is voters in marginal and more closely contested seats that decide winners and losers. Democracy has its imperfections but it is surely the only system that has been devised that satisfies the majority of people who participate at a given time.
It would be nothing short of unfair to implement an insurance-style approach to voting whereby the votes of people who lead unhealthy lifestyles or indulge in unhealthy habits are disenfranchised or have their votes devalued on the basis that their life expectancies are judged to be shorter than those fit and healthy individuals. What about servicemen and women in combat zones or fans of extreme and often dangerous sports? We wouldn’t deny a terminally ill person their right to vote.
Older Brexiteers did not enter the polling station with the aim of “punishing” anybody, of whatever age. I’m sure the majority of people, both on the Leave and Remain sides, voted on what they thought was best for the country, themselves and their families. Middle-aged and elderly Brexiteers may have years, decades even, to live with their decision. Just because you are in your sunset years doesn’t mean you are blasé about deciding how to vote on an issue of great importance such as EU membership. Pensioners can lead insecure lives on modest pensions, just as those in their late teens and twenties do when entering the job market and finding a place to live.
Although the referendum was a UK-wide vote, the SNP maintained that Scotland has been dragged out of Europe against its will by England with a little help from Wales. The same could be said about Northern Ireland. Scotland was the most Europhile part of the UK, whose people voted 62 percent for Remain.
Switzerland has an established tradition of direct democracy. For an initiative that seeks to amend the federal Constitution to pass it must be approved by 50 percent of voters in addition to a majority of Switzerland’s semi-autonomous regions, known as cantons. However in the UK’s EU referendum, no such criteria had been established beforehand and so the first side to cross the 50 percent mark was declared the victor.
In a democracy, nobody is afforded special privileges depending on their age or some other trait or characteristic. In the context of the EU referendum, younger voters were given the opportunity to register and to turn out to vote on 23 June, however many chose not to make the trip to the polling station on the day.
Can younger voters really complain about the outcome?