The Agenda

The Conservative Case for Demeny Voting

This week, Chrystia Freeland praised the left-of-center Canadian economist Miles Corak’s recent call for “Demeny voting,” i.e., allowing mothers or custodial fathers to vote on behalf of their under-18 children. Corak details the idea in a recent report for Canada 2020:

Under such a voting system, just as society transfers economic resources to parents for the benefit of children, so it also transfers political resources. The actual design of a Demeny voting scheme requires discussion. Demeny suggested that each parent should be given the right to exercise an extra half vote for each child under their guardianship.

Some will be cautious about the idea of giving parents any extra votes at all, particularly in cases of abuse,when the family is not concerned with the welfare of children, or when children no longer reside with their parents. But economic resources are transferred to parents; the fact thatthey may not always be spent in the best interests of children is not an argument against providing families with income support. There is, though, a precedent in Canada and other countries of transferring economic resources intended for the child directly to the mother. This is based on empirical research documenting that household expenditures tend, on average, to reflect a child’s needs more clearly when the mother’s income and bargaining power in the household are higher. In a similar way a Demeny voting scheme would give mothers, or when appropriate the custodial parent, the entire proxy vote for each child.

The bottom line is that if extending the franchise to children will increase the incentive for families to vote, it will offer a counter-balance to the growing and disproportionate influence of othergroups. This may be a way of more fully expressing the concerns of children in the marketplace of political ideas and increasing the incentive for politicians to reflect these concerns in budgetary and policy priorities.

Debates over entitlement reform are powerfully shaped by the political influence of older Americans, who have grown more numerous over time and who have a higher propensity to vote than younger Americans. Demeny voting could, in theory, mitigate the influence of older voters while providing parents with a powerful incentive to vote. The goal would be to foster a more “future-oriented” electorate that places somewhat less emphasis on the value of current consumption relative to future consumption. This future-orientation could take many different forms. For example, Demeny voting might lead to more calls for redistribution from rich to poor or from old to young, particular since incomes tend to climb as workers age. And it would presumably lead to increased funding for education and other services designed to benefit the young.  

Yet as Freeland observes, there is another aspect of Demeny voting that might prove appealing to the political right:

It is hard to imagine an idea more likely to empower pro-family, socially conservative communities. 

The future-orientation of socially conservative parents might lead them to favor “family-friendly” policies designed to ease the burdens of child-rearing. One of the forces that has tended to limit family size, particularly among college-educated middle- and high-income parents, is the opportunity cost of child-rearing. Parents who choose to have large families are often making a significant sacrifice to do so. A number of conservatives, led by Robert Stein and Ramesh Ponnuru, have proposed reforming the tax code so as to ease this economic burden on parents. Demeny voting would tend to favor such political projects. 

Consider the following from Phil Longman’s provocative 2006 article on “The Return of Patriarchy“:

A single child replaces one of his or her parents, but not both. Nor do single-child families contribute much to future population. The 17.4 percent of baby boomer women who had only one child account for a mere 7.8 percent of children born in the next generation. By contrast, nearly a quarter of the children of baby boomers descend from the mere 11 percent of baby boomer women who had four or more children. These circumstances are leading to the emergence of a new society whose members will disproportionately be descended from parents who rejected the social tendencies that once made childlessness and small families the norm. These values include an adherence to traditional, patriarchal religion, and a strong identification with one’s own folk or nation.

Longman may well have been overstating the case regarding the cultural conservatism of the parents of large families. But it is certainly true that Demeny voting would tend to dilute the political influence of childless adults, a group that increasingly skews left. That is why, alas, it is unlikely that Corak’s proposal will ever be implemented. 


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