More democracy instead of gerontocracy. What is the ‘family voting’ proposal really about?

25.05.2018 | By Piotr Trudnowski

A few weeks ago, Polish Deputy Prime Minister Jarosław Gowin brought up the topic of “family voting”, a proposal his party had put forward about 5 years earlier. The idea immediately received backlash as critics accused him of attempting to “bribe” voters with many children to secure the performance of the right-wing parties at the ballot box. The commentators were so focused on criticism that it never occurred to them that Gowin’s proposal can make sense if we look at it as an innovation of political system that is likely to alleviate negative social and economic effects of Europe’s ageing populations. They seem to be forgetting that according to demographic forecasts the elderly will in three decades become the biggest age group to influence the future of Poland. So-called “family voting” only seemingly violates the principles of democracy. It could easily be defended by both the proponents of liberal democracy and the supporters of its republican correction.

Council of Europe in search for ideas for Europe’s future

“This proposal would grant full rights of membership in the political community from the moment of birth to all persons born within its territory or to all of its citizens living abroad, as well as to those children who are subsequently naturalised. Recognising the incapacity of children to exercise their formal rights directly and independently, this reform further proposes that the parents of each child be empowered to exercise the right to vote until the child reaches the age of maturity established by national law. (…) This reform should make the local, regional or national democracy more “future-oriented”. Not only would allowing children the vote constitutes a symbolic recognition that the polity has a responsibility for its future generations, but it should also provide a real incentive for the young to develop an early interest in politics (…) This also suggests that the reform measure should increase various forms of inter-generational discussion about political issues and partisan orientations in general – strengthening channels of political socialisation and improving the elements of citizen training within the family that seem to have considerably diminished in recent decades. (…)

Enfranchising young children and adolescents should contribute to a greater equilibrium of the political process over the life cycle. With increasing life spans and a stable age of retirement, older persons have become an increasingly large component of the total citizenry. They have both the time and financial resources to participate disproportionately in the electoral and policy processes – with the result that an increasing proportion of public funds are being spent on the health and welfare of the aged, and a decreasing sum on the education and training of the young. In the longer run, this is bound to be a self-defeating process as a smaller and less productive set of active workers must pay for an increasingly larger set of retired workers.”

It is not a quote from the manifesto of Jarosław Gowin’s party or a remark made by some conservative ideologist. Quite the contrary: this is the very first recommendation included in “Green Paper: The Future of Democracy in Europe”, a document that was in 2004 written jointly by a working group of high-level experts participating in the Council of Europe’s project entitled “Making democratic institutions work”. The “Green Book” was edited and coordinated by Phillipe C. Schmitter, a former Stanford professor, currently at the European University Institute in Florence, a prestigious school funded by the EU member states and commonly perceived as the breeding ground for the European human resources. Among 28 recommendations on this “wish list”, there are at least a few that might still raise eyebrows today considering their visionary scale. There is also a number of ideas that have in 14 years become either a non-controversial topic of mainstream debate (e.g. electronic voting) or even the bread and butter of democratic practice (e.g. participatory budgets).


This debate has been going on for the last 30 years

The Council of Europe’s document proposes the introduction of “universal citizenship”. But the idea of everyone having the right to vote – including minors, whose right would be exercised by their parents – is far older. In Poland, it has been known as “family voting”, while source literature has been using the term “Demeny voting”, which was first used in the 80s by Paul Demeny, a Hungarian-born demographer, Princeton lecturer and professor at Michigan and Berkeley.

The idea has thus been present in the academic debate for at least 30 years, analysed by numerous sociologists, political scientists, economists and demographers. A few countries have held political discussions on its possible incorporation into their legal systems. Germany can be shown as an example, where the topic has emerged during an advanced debate on children’s voting rights in the 21st century (asked to give its opinion on the matter, the Federal Constitutional Court ruled that today’s legal situation, which excludes minors from the voters’ community, complies with the German constitution). What may come as a surprise to many Poles who are sceptical about this idea, in Germany it was first proposed by leftist, social democratic and Green politicians, in order to earn cross-party support.

However, it is Japan that has so far had the most in-depth discussion about the family voting. It is no coincidence – no other highly developed country has struggled with the consequences of an ageing population as much as the Land of the Rising Sun. In 1980 the number of Japanese who were 90 (sic!) or older was 120,000, a number which raised to half of a million in 2004 and reached the level of almost 2 million in 2017! The fact that Japan has the highest average age in the world is only one of the factors that contributed to such a state of affairs. Another one is the fertility rate that hasn’t been high enough to guarantee the replacement of generations since the early 60s. In the middle of 2017 people over 64 constituted 27,7% of Japan’s population, while those under 15 comprised only 12,3%. There are thus twice as many pensioners as children. There’s a reason why experts who proposed “Demeny voting” in Japan in 2009 had presumed it would restore equilibrium to Japanese democracy. If such reform had been implemented, then the aggregated strength of parents’ vote would constitute 37% of all ballots (it currently stands at 34%) compared to 35% of votes of people who are over 55 (now at 43%).


What do demographic statistics say about Poland AD 2050?

How is it related to Poland? Although we’re still pretty far from what Japan struggles with, the problem of ageing population concerns us too. According to the data gathered by Statistics Poland (Główny Urząd Statystyczny – GUS), in 2016 Poland had more than 23,7 million people of working age, that is the adults below retirement age (18-59/64). Within this group there were about 15 million people in a so-called “mobile working age”, that is aged between 18 and 44. The number of people who reached retirement age (60/65+) exceeded 7,7 million. Therefore, there are about 3 people of working age and two people of mobile working age (18-44) to every pensioner (and it is when we assume that people retire when they turn 60/65, while in practice it often happens sooner). If we look at these numbers more comprehensively, we can conclude that today exactly half of all adults is under 44 and the other half over 45.

What is Statistics Poland’s (GUS’s) forecast for 2050? It predicts that the median age will increase by 10,9 years (to the level of 48,8 years) for men and by 12,3 years (to 53,7) for women. Our population in the middle of the century could be (according to one of the more optimistic scenarios) 35 million. We’ll have 20 million of adults of working age to 10 million pensioners.

However, this is a fairly optimistic forecast anyway, considering the fact that GUS used the previous threshold of the retirement age (following the 2012 decision of Polish parliament to raise the retirement age to 67, all men were to retire at that age from 2020 on and all women from 2040; in 2016 the current Law and Justice government reversed this reform). If we assume that in 2050 the retirement age is still 60 for women and 65 for men, then we’ll have 4,8 million retired men and 7,5 million women, making the total number of pensioners equal roughly 12,3 million to 17,7 million people of working age. There will only be about 10 million people of mobile working age (18-44).

We will, therefore, have 1,5 person in their working age (as a reminder – it’s 3 such persons now!) and 0,8 person under 45 (2 today) for every pensioner. There will be 2 million more pensioners than persons under 45 and those between 18 and 44 will comprise only one-third of all adults (they currently constitute 50%).


A real threat of gerontocracy

It seems a truism to say that our own life situation is the primary factor influencing our political decisions. It goes without saying that parents are more interested in education standards or pro-natalist policies, while the elderly rely on the authorities to boost their pensions and make healthcare more focused on pensioners’ needs.

As of today, every citizen gains the right to vote at 18, making the distribution of votes directly proportional to the demographic structure of voters. To put it simpler, the aggregated strength of pensioners’ vote equals 25%, while the strength of the vote of all working age people combined is 75% and voters between 18 and 44 constitute two-thirds of that figure (and at the same time – 50% of all votes).

According to forecasts, these proportions will get significantly disturbed by 2050. Out of 29,5 million of those allowed to vote the votes of pensioners will constitute roughly 42% (up from today’s 25%), and the strength of vote of working age people will fall below the level of 60%. In effect, the votes of people aged 18-44 will comprise merely 33% of all votes!

It is becoming increasingly clear that we’ve approached the moment in which it is worth checking how granting parents the right to vote on behalf of their children would impact the distribution of votes in different age groups. For simplification purposes, we’ll assume that the votes of children – according to the forecast for 2050, Poland will have 5,3 million of citizens aged 0-18 – are added to the votes of people aged 18-44. The overall result would be an increase in the number of all ballots to 34,8 million and, consequently, a decrease in pensioners’ strength of vote. In such scenario, the votes of the elderly would constitute 35% of all votes, which is still significantly more than today! The strength of vote of people aged 18-44 and their children would, in turn, equal 43% of all votes, which is less than the votes of today’s mobile working age group without the addition of children’s votes.

To summarise, a demographic tsunami will completely reverse proportions of different age groups’ influence on Polish democracy. Until 2050 the pensioners, whose votes constitute only one-fourth of all votes today, will already have become the most influential group among voters. The group that exerts the greatest impact today – people aged 18-44 – will not be able to maintain its position even if they were allowed to vote on behalf of their children! In the light of seemingly inevitable gerontocracy, one could hardly come up with a better argument in favour of a revision of the current voting system.

Does family voting undermine the fundamentals of democracy?

It is evident and incontestable that the introduction of family voting requires amending the constitution and this has been numerously brought up by the supporters of the idea. At the same time, it has to be pointed out that changing constitution to grant children the right to vote does not necessarily constitute a violation of democratic principles. Quite the contrary, many regard extending the right to vote to all citizens and thus its full universalisation as the quintessence of “democratic principles”. We’ll come back to the widely disputed question of how parents should manage their children’s votes and what kind of problems their mismanagement may cause.

If someone is still unconvinced by demographic arguments and the threat of being ruled by the elderly, they should then consider the tax argument. In political debates, it is often forgotten that these are the indirect taxes (mainly VAT) rather than income or capital taxes that not only contribute to the state’s budget most but also impact the level of citizens’ fiscalisation. In practice, indirect taxes are regressive – impoverished citizens tend to give away significantly greater fraction of their income through VAT than the more affluent ones. In this context, it also needs to be highlighted that families have a higher consumer spending than single people.

In his study for Sejm’s Bureau of Research (Biuro Analiz Sejmowych – BAS) dr Piotr Russel from Warsaw School of Economics argues that “the level of indirect taxes incurred on a purchase of goods and services per one person in a 4-person household is higher than total tax relief that could be claimed for one child”. Although the introduction of a state programme “500 Plus” undoubtedly improved most families’ financial and fiscal situation, one must remember that a certain “overrepresentation” of families’ tax (VAT) contribution to the state budget is still real.

These considerations can be summed up by a simple example. A family of 9 (parents and 7 children under 18 years old) has a proportionally bigger contribution to state budget than a childless couple, and both these families are only entitled to cast two votes in an election. And this is all despite the fact that we’re dealing with 9 people, whose consumption is regularly taxed. One could, therefore, argue that granting families the right to vote on behalf of children is merely an attempt to follow a rule saying that taxation should be conditioned by political representation (no taxation without representation). 

What would it be like in practice?

Out of all the problems associated with family voting, there are two that are cited most often. First of all, who should vote on behalf of children? Their mother or father? And secondly – what if the children are politically conscious and their parents refuse to vote in line with their preference?

The first of these dilemmas can be solved pretty easily. To avoid conflicts, each parent would be entitled to “half of a vote” per child. That could, in practice, imply filling out an additional (e.g. colourful) voting sheet of lesser importance. This way, both parents would be able to manage their children’s votes proportionately. It could, however, still get problematic if children are orphans or their parents have been deprived of parental rights. As a constitutional lawyer from Gdańsk University, professor Piotr Uziębło,  points out, an inability to exercise their right to vote could amount to discrimination. It thus seems natural to grant this right to their legal guardians – although it could result in some guardians “accumulating” votes, it doesn’t seem like these cases could ever become widespread enough to have a meaningful impact election results.

Similarly, there’s a simple remedy for the second dilemma. It could be a good idea to introduce a state “constitutional exam” to be taken by minors. Passing one would entitle them to vote independently. At this point, it has to be highlighted that granting children the right to vote is not only likely to develop their awareness of citizenship, but it might also encourage them to participate in their families’ discussions about public life. Ideally, parents would consult their children before the vote and then vote in line with their expectations. If we combine this solution with already mentioned “constitutional exam”, it seems that the family voting is highly likely to influence the political awareness of young people positively. It is widely believed that its insufficient level is one of the main problems that turbulent Western democracies are currently struggling with.

Finally, the family voting might have an interesting side-effect, that is a potentially increased variety in Poland’s political scene. The youth is more likely than the general population to back smaller, anti-establishment parties. This fact alone could lead to a situation (for the sake of simplification, we’ll assume that a person’s worldview is to some extent inherited) in which parents in conservative families use their votes to support Law and Justice (PiS) and their children’s votes to back Janusz Korwin-Mikke’s Wolność (Freedom). Liberal or left-leaning parents would, on the other hand, themselves vote for Nowoczesna (Modern), while also backing Razem (Together) on behalf of their children.

Even if voting in line with children’s preferences didn’t become a norm, having more than one ballot paper at disposal would still be a powerful stimulus for increasing diversification of our political scene. Just like with the STV (Single Transferable Vote) voting system, a possibility to vote for more than one candidate would strengthen smaller parties as the risk of “complete waste of a vote” would be significantly minimised.


Community correction of individualistic democracy

I sincerely hope the argumentation I developed above will to at least some extent calm the proponents of contemporary liberal democracy like professor Mikołaj Cześnik. In an interview for “Gazeta Wyborcza”, he shares his concern about 17-year-olds having different political beliefs than their parents and wonders about who would vote on their behalf – their mothers or fathers. He also repeats an absurd – in the light of Gowin’s awareness that the introduction of family voting requires amending the constitution – accusation of unconstitutionality, as well as admits that he’s never heard about the idea before.

At the same time, we should not forget that family voting could also win the support of those who are highly sceptical of today’s individualistic form of liberal democracy. They could potentially regard the proposal of family voting as an appreciation of family as the foundation of the state’s life in not just social, but also economic and political terms.

The discussion on whether or not the family should be perceived as a legal entity is definitely going to raise concerns of human rights ideologists who perceive their field as radically individualistic. We’re aware that bringing this topic up is skating on thin ice, but we believe that, in the face of upcoming demographic and cultural challenges, it is worth starting a debate on the idea.

Last but not least, a “republican correction” of liberal democracy, as represented by family voting, has one more dimension. For the reasons outlined above, it is a natural booster of the voters’ responsibility for future generations. We tend to forget that this is our constitutional commitment stated directly not only in its preamble, but also, to name an example, in Article 74 (which includes such an interesting expression as “ecological safety” – undoubtedly a reference to future generations). And apart from being our legal duty, it is also practical. As we attempt to alleviate the consequences of growing number of pensioners by increasing the strength of the youth’s vote, we naturally bring up the argument of the economic challenge posed by our ageing population, as well as attract more attention to the issue of environmental protection.


It is not about buying the votes of families with many children

To be honest with our Readers, I will once again remind you that I was personally engaged in the process of incorporating the proposal of family voting into Jarosław Gowin’s party agenda a few years ago. At that time, the current deputy prime minister was building his new political movement following his departure from Civic Platform (PO). Then, I firmly believed incorporating the idea into the Polish political debate could become not only a stimulus for a more serious discussion about demographic challenges but also an example of taking a more innovative perspective on our political system. If I were to advise Gowin today, I would recommend him to be more restrained. If you’re creating a new party and thus only hope for a single-digit result in upcoming elections, you can allow yourself to take risks. If you, in turn, happen to be the current deputy prime minister, you need to be careful not to present political proposals that can be considered too brave. The idea itself could have been taken seriously if only it was adduced in a broader context and based on detailed studies (which would now be much easier for Gowin to conduct than in 2013, when he was starting his new party) rather than mentioned briefly, seemingly as a filler of Gowin’s speech. Whatever the impression it created, I think the emergence of this proposal in the mainstream of Polish public debate should be regarded as both justified and beneficial.

There are absolutely no rational arguments supporting the claims that the family voting is merely the product of Gowin’s willingness and determination to “broaden the electoral appeal of the ruling party”. Some commentators have, rightly, reminded about research suggesting that Law and Justice (PiS) enjoys higher support among families with many children (considering how small their sample sizes are, I would still advise caution while analysing the results of polls). It is, however, worth remembering that Gowin is more of the party’s competitor rather than its ally. And on my side, I must add that we came up with this proposal while we had no research or analyses proving that newly created “in-between PO and PiS” party could count on the votes of families with many children. We just thought the idea was worthy of a discussion, as simple as that. Allegations that we had a particular interest in pushing it through a display at least a mediocre memory of public life commentators, if not also their ill will and unreliability.


Either we’ll be innovative, or the pensioners will set us up

Lastly, we must once again quote the Council of Europe’s Green Paper: “Our guiding hypothesis (…) will be that the future of democracy in Europe lies less in fortifying and perpetuating existing formal institutions and informal practices than in changing them. >>Whatever form it takes, the democracy of our successors will not and cannot be the democracy of our predecessors<< (Robert Dahl)”. In other words, to remain the same, that is to sustain its legitimacy, democracy as we know it will have to change and to change significantly (…) There is nothing new about this. Democracy has undergone several major transformations in the past to re-affirm its central principles: the sovereignty of equal citizens and the accountability of unequal rulers. It increased in scale from the city- to the nation-state; it expanded its citizenry from a narrow male oligarchy to a mass public of men and women; it enlarged its scope from defence against aggressors and the administration of justice to the whole panoply of policies associated with the welfare state”.

Such a way of thinking should appeal to everyone who perceives democracy as an unprecedented value while at the same time acknowledging major flaws in it’s today state. It hasn’t been two weeks since our colleague Rafał Matyja used bold words to describe this problem. “The way it is now, representative democracy to some extent loses its raison d’être. We have to look for more adequate solutions,” he wrote.

It’s easy to talk about innovations when the only thing we do is copying solutions that proved to be successful in other countries. Initiating a thorough debate about them and testing our own solutions will naturally involve a greater risk, but it is at the same likely to provide us with more opportunities.

Even a very brief analysis of the current scientific and political debate implies that the family voting will soon be introduced in one of the Western states. We can assume that a state that takes such risk will not only gain first-mover advantage in a fight against the repercussions of ageing populations, but it will also considerably improve its international position.

If we don’t learn how to conduct thorough and serious debates about political innovation, we can be sure that Poland will never manage to gain a first-mover advantage by preempting rivals.


Considering the journalistic nature of this article, I have only used simplified estimations of different age groups’ participation in population and electorate. The Jagiellonian Club is, however, planning to prepare an advanced report analysis, which will be based on more precise calculations made by our experts.


Translation from Polish: Aleksandra Wróbel



This publication has been cofinanced by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland within “Cooperation in Public Diplomacy 2018” programme.
This publication reflects the views of the author and not the official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.