Why Don’t Referenda Work? Blame Older Voters

by / December 4, 2016 News No Comments

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By Aruna Krishna, Deputy News Editor

A recent piece of research conducted by a LSE faculty member concludes that referenda that are favourable to the elderly are unsuitable for eliciting long term political benefits. The research showed an overwhelming tendency for older voters to vote for their generation’s self-interest. In an ageing population, where older people are–or will soon be–the majority demographic group, this means that political decisions seen as having long-term benefits to the younger generation are less likely to gain majority support.

This published discussion paper called ‘Direct Democracy and Intergenerational Conflicts in Ageing Societies’ discussed the effect of age on voting behaviour. An analysis of 82 referenda on a wide range of issues, such as spending on public schools, political integration, infrastructure projects, energy, and green energy initiatives was done. Due to projections of ageing in populations across Europe, the paper proposed that political decisions with long-term benefits would be better based on social cost-benefit analyses rather than by public referenda–unless governments found ways to compensate for generational differences in net-benefits.

The paper also uses an original case study of a 2011 referendum vote in Stuttgart in Germany, where residents were asked to vote on plans to create one of the largest rail infrastructure projects in Germany’s history. The proposed project would have led to significant disruptions to transport services over the 10-year construction period before any benefits were realised. The timescale of the project meant that the benefits for older generations were relatively limited in comparison to younger generations. The study found that an increase in the average age of the voter significantly increased the likelihood of their opposition to the project. A one year increase in the average age of the adult population in an area was associated with a 0.91 average per cent increase in the share of votes opposing the project. The study suggested that despite the clear majority vote support for the project in 2011, population ageing would cause a similar referendum to be rejected by the 2030s.

One of the authors of the paper, Dr Gabriel Ahlfeldt of the Department of Geography and Environment from LSE said, “While voting for one’s own self-interest is common, the direct democratic nature of referenda often presents the electorate with a simple binary choice.  The example of the referendum in Stuttgart and other the 82 other examples analysed in our study show older people are likely to take a short-term view based on their own interests, and this can mean that younger generations lose out.”

The study supported the evidence that elderly voter’s preferences are determined by self-interest. This could increase the likelihood of intergenerational conflict, and of governments failing to plan effectively for the best interests of society.

“Our study shows that older people tend to vote according to their own self-interest, and this can be a problem in ageing populations when long-term decisions need to be taken.”, Ahlfeldt added.

The result of the study gets more realistic when we discuss Brexit. Are youngsters going to face the brunt of the older generation’s impetus? Ahlfeldt mentioned, “These findings also raise questions on comparable referenda, such as the Britain’s vote to withdraw from the European Union in 2016. Older voters typically voted largely to leave, while younger voters tended vote to remain. It is likely that both of these generations voted in line with their self-interest, but it may be that the demographic profile of Britain tipped the vote towards leaving the European Union.”

According to him, the EU decision will have consequences for decades to come, and will affect the future generation’s prospects and lives. Given the evident generational divide, it is unsure whether these types of issues can be resolved by referenda in the future.

Joel Pearce

News Editor and 3rd year Government undergrad. Get in touch: news@thebeaveronline.co.uk