Do voters care about politicians’ ages?

September 29, 2023


How long politicians should stay in office based on their age continues to be the subject of much debate, especially when voters see elected officials misspeak, stumble or show any signs of getting older.

The death of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who continued serving despite declining health, adds to the discussion as she dismissed calls for her to step down from office.

Christian Fong, assistant professor of political science at the University of Michigan, addresses whether a politician’s age matters to voters, especially if it is someone from the party they support.

Do voters really care about a politician’s age?

Definitely. In 2014, a team of political scientists ran an experiment where they pitted hypothetical candidates against one another and asked Americans which they preferred. They found that voters dislike elderly candidates. The penalty is substantial—the difference between a candidate who is 46 years old and one who is 75 is bigger than the difference between a candidate who served in the military and one who did not. There are lots of factors that go into which candidates voters like, but all else equal, they would prefer somebody who is not too old.

But older candidates often have advantages that help them win reelection anyway. The longer you stay in Congress, the more power you accrue. You get on better committees. You might even become the chair or ranking member. That gives them more influence over public policy and government spending, so they can do more for their constituents. Even if, in the abstract, their constituents might prefer someone younger to represent them, they’re understandably reluctant to give up all of the advantages that come with having a more seasoned legislator working for them.

At what point should politicians step aside—and how often has it happened in history?

Politicians should step aside when their health prevents them from effectively representing their constituents. Many of them do. Just last week, Rep. (Jennifer) Wexton, who is still in her 50s, announced that she will retire because she has been diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy. In 2022, Sen. (Jim) Inhofe retired because he was suffering from long-term COVID, and in 2019, Sen. (Johnny) Isakson resigned due to his struggle with Parkinson’s disease. Over the last three election cycles, there were eight octogenarian senators who were due to run for reelection. Five of them retired rather than run for another term.

Of course, some politicians stay in office despite significant health problems that interfere with their work. This seems to have been the case with Sen. Feinstein, but it has been happening for a long time. In 1942, Sen. Carter Glass’ health declined to the point where he could no longer attend Senate meetings. He stayed in office until his death four years later, and he retained his position as the chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee the whole time.

Some have wondered if physical and mental tests should be given to some older politicians. Would that ever happen?

Somebody has to design and administer those tests. If you give somebody the right to overrule the voters and declare a politician physically or mentally incompetent, you have to consider the possibility they will not use it in an evenhanded way. Who is going to choose that person? If elected officials like the president or the Speaker of the House are involved, they might pick somebody who will be biased toward their party. Even if we kept politicians out of the process, is there any institution that citizens of all political persuasions would trust to be fair?

We know the 25th Amendment can be invoked to transfer power from the president if he is unable to fulfill his duties. Does something similar need to be added for congressional members since, if something happens, their constituents would be without representation?

Such a procedure already exists. Article 1, Section 5 of the Constitution gives each chamber the right to expel a member with a two-thirds majority. So far, Congress has only considered the expulsion of members for unethical or treasonous conduct, but they could interpret failure to perform the basic duties of a representative due to infirmity as disorderly conduct and expel a member for that. Practically speaking, I doubt that you could convince a two-thirds majority to remove one of their colleagues from office for ill health, but they could if they wanted to.

At the end of the day, how much is this about age and how much is it partisanship?

I can understand how some voters would think, “Sure, my party’s candidate might not be physically or mentally competent to do their job, but that’s still better than voting for the other party.” For a lot of people, voting for someone from the other party is unthinkable, even if you have serious doubts about your own party’s candidate. That’s why primaries are so important. They’re how you can avoid getting stuck in that situation. You might wish there was some impartial judge who could remove unfit politicians from office, but in a democracy, that’s ultimately the voter’s job. If they think their politicians are too old, then they should look to replace them—if not in the general election, then in the primaries.

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