Ban Older Americans From the Polls? We’re Not Laughing

Was a Time magazine essay writer trying to be funny?

Part of the Political Issues and Policies Special Report

It was a provocative headline: “Why Older People Shouldn’t Vote — and Other Ideas Unpopular With My Parents.”

But it was only when I read the essay in the latest Time magazine that my jaw dropped. “The over-65 generation does not accurately represent our country because they are overwhelmingly white and actually vote. So, unfortunately, we’re going to have to bar them from voting,” it read.

I couldn’t quite tell whether 45-year-old columnist Joel Stein was kidding. So I tracked him down and as he was about to board a plane, asked him if he was serious. Stein paused and acknowledged, “I don’t know if my tongue was firmly in cheek.”

Brexit a Factor

Turns out Stein’s idea stemmed from seeing the results of the historic vote in June where pro-Brexit boomers defeated the pro-Remain Millennials, forcing the United Kingdom to sever its ties with the European Union.

Stein doesn't seem bothered by treating older voters — who vote in higher numbers and more faithfully than younger voters — as a monolith.

There were blunt headlines at the time that reflected the attacks on older voters, including “How old people have screwed over the younger generation” in the Independent and some with far saltier language.

In fact, leading up to the vote, the headline in the UK’s edition of GQ magazine didn’t mince words: “We should ban old people from voting.” It was the only effective way the GQ writer saw to stop the so-called “Leave” campaign. His rationale: “If a 15-year-old whose entire economic and political future could be determined by the referendum can’t vote, then neither should a 75-year-old” since “leaving the EU would take a minimum of 10 years and those of retirement age would have little or no stake in the country’s next era.”

Stein saw a connection between the older voters who helped push Brexit to victory across the pond and older voters here who were largely responsible for Donald Trump capturing the Republican Presidential nomination.

Group ‘Causing Problems’

“They were, in both cases, making decisions I thought were bad for the world,” he said. “And I thought this is a demographic that is causing a lot of problems right now.”

To justify his call to ban older people from voting — an idea Stein conceded was “obnoxious” — he used British and American surveys that showed “people over 65 — compared to people under 30 — were nearly twice as likely to be against gay marriage; twice as likely to be pro-Brexit; half as likely to support legalization of marijuana; nearly five times less likely to want to spend money on education; 60 percent more likely to vote for Donald Trump and nearly 50 percent more likely to say immigrants have a negative impact on society, despite the fact they are being wheeled around by them.”

His conclusion: “Old people vote shortsightedly, choosing the least progressive outcome.”

Other Views

Of course, my 83-year-old uncle, Jonas Chaves, begs to differ with Stein. A retired federal employee, political junkie and dyed-in-the-wool Massachusetts Democrat, Chaves bristles at any notion of a ban on older voters.

“Voting is the only way you can offer your opinion. I’d like to see Election Day made a holiday or hold it on a Saturday or Sunday to make it easier for people to vote,” he said.

And despite Stein’s characterization of the older voter, Chaves proudly calls himself a progressive. “I think a lot of elderly people want programs and services. And in my case, I’m willing to pay for them. Some people follow sports, some people the stock market. I follow politics and current events. I’ve been doing this since about 1947.”

In the next town on Boston’s North Shore, on the other end of the political spectrum, another 83-year-old is just as vehement about the right to vote. But S. James Coppersmith, a retired television executive who serves on the board of a financial firm and is an unapologetic Republican, took issue with Stein’s essay for a different reason.

‘Your Time Is Over’

“It’s a liberal subterfuge,” he said. “The subliminal message here is if you’re old and if you have an old-fashioned patriotism about you, if you’re a guy like me who comes from a small town and never took a dime of government assistance in his life for anything, at age 83, ‘Your time is over. Go sit in your rocking chair.’

“And I say to him, &@*# you! I’m still able to make a contribution. This is ageism. In other countries, people my age are venerated. Some of us may go up the stairs a little slower. But between the ears, we’re just as fast as we always were,” Coppersmith said.

Stein doesn’t seem bothered by treating older voters — who vote in higher numbers and more faithfully than younger voters — as a monolith. Yes, a 2014 Gallup Poll says U.S. adults 65 and older have moved from a reliably Democratic group to a reliably Republican one over the past two decades. But they hardly vote in lockstep, despite what Stein told me.

“Older people seem very reactionary, especially at this very moment,” Stein said. “I’m worried about Trump. Make our country great again. I worry about the ‘again’ part. I worry that the march of gay rights is happening without much support from older people.”

The one organization you can count on to tout the power of the older adult vote, AARP, never got back to Stein for reaction to his column, he says. I tried, too, but also got no response.

Candidates Themselves Are Boomers

The notion of banning voters older than 65 is especially ironic this year when the two leading candidates for President will be 70 (Trump) and 69 (Clinton) on Election Day.

Stein told me his column made it through a gauntlet of editors, but when it reached Time’s top editor, Nancy Gibbs, she removed “a bunch of jokes” he thought imprudent to share with me.

Oddly, the digital edition of Time labels the column “Ideas/Humor,” but there is no such label in the print edition of the magazine, which uses “Essay/The Awesome Column.” Apparently, the folks at Time are as confused as I am about whether the call to ban older people from the voting booth is funny.

Should such a law ever pass Constitutional muster and go into effect say, 20 years from now when he turns 65, will Joel Stein be laughing?


Richard Harris
By Richard Harris
Richard Harris is a freelance writer, consultant to the nonprofit iCivics and former senior producer of ABC News NIGHTLINE with Ted Koppel. Follow him on Twitter @redsox54.

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