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Age limits and competency tests for elected officials are not democratic

A graphic depicting Nancy Pelosi, Joseph Biden, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and Mitch McConnell. Many Americans are weighing the potential benefits and drawbacks of implementing age limits and competency tests for elected government officials. ILLUSTRATED BY MACKENZIE YADDAW/THE STATESMAN

In two separate incidents, one in July and one in August, acting Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell appeared disoriented and unaware during news conferences. Millions of viewers watched the man who leads a major body of politicians freeze up and stop speaking as if he was experiencing a medical emergency. McConnell’s leadership abilities have been called into question, alongside those of America’s other aging politicians.

Discourse on social media platforms supports the rhetoric that the House of Representatives seems to be safe in the hands of younger politicians. A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center found that “only 3% of respondents said it’s best for a president to be in their 70s or older.” The media is quick to point out that former Speaker Nancy Pelosi still maintains influential political power despite being 83 years old. Pelosi has been regarded as a controversial figure for years, and many see her actions in Congress as regressive and ignorant to the needs of the American population.

With the 2024 United States Presidential election on the horizon, 80-year-old President Joe Biden’s age will continue to be contested by his opponents. According to polls, his biggest opponent is former President Donald Trump, whose age trails by only three years. It is increasingly clear that voters have become more aware of the rising ages of their politicians through news outlets and social media platforms. Never before in U.S. history have the frontrunners of both major political parties been above the average life expectancy of 79

Young Americans fear that this older leadership displays a lack of understanding and care for sociocultural problems facing the general public. In response, activists have proposed the introduction of age limits and even competency tests for elected officials.

However, there is a clear danger to imposing such policies. One of the most important parts of American politics is the voting process, and putting a halt on voters’ decisions based on arbitrary boundaries may lead to abuses of power from those who implement them. Not only is the concept of maximum age limits potentially dangerous, but if used incorrectly, it also promotes age discrimination, which is prohibited when referring to denying employment based on age under The Age Discrimination Act of 1975

Voters have the right to select representation that they generally believe is best for them. That person may be elderly and may not be the most capable candidate. That person could even be an irresponsible choice. Ultimately, that choice should remain in the hands of constituents.

Imagine a scenario in which a candidate wins the majority vote of their constituents and is then told they are not competent enough to follow through on the campaigns voters wanted to see enacted. Even if these limits are imposed before candidates can enter into consideration, that still deprives voters of considering that leader in the first place. Also, what would this limit be? Would we accept a 79-year-old to be president, but absolutely forbid an 80-year-old for the position?

U.S. Senior Senator of Vermont Bernie Sanders is a clear example of this. While the senator is older than President Biden, he is perceived to be a highly-functioning and well-spoken leader in his position. Many voters favor Sanders over comparable younger officials despite his age.

Voter activists’ calls for limits can be followed through on paper. After all, it makes sense to expect that a person with such an important and powerful job should be mentally stable and fit to perform the tasks they are elected to perform. Many professional occupations require competency tests and most elderly Americans retire in their sixties before they reach ages that might prohibit them from performing their duties.

There is also an obvious generational gap between the desired policies of older politicians and the younger voters they represent. Even those who show support for such politicians recognize the downsides to their increasing political reach. Voters have often regretted their choices of representation and leadership, as is reflected in polling data, media coverage and discourse. 

However, the means of making up for this are already present in our system: representatives are reconsidered every two years, senators every six years and presidents’ administrations every four years. 

If voters in California’s 12th congressional district think Pelosi’s age or competency raises issues, they have the chance to remove her in November 2024.

I am worried about the growing calls for such limits to remove major politicians from leadership positions without the consent of the governed, and I question the intentions of many proponents of competency tests.

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    SaoirseNov 10, 2023 at 8:13 pm

    You mention competency tests, yet don’t even address how enforcing those would negatively effect politicians? It is true that everyone will function differently into their old age, and it would be unfair to oust a congressperson from their position the moment they reach an arbitrary age, but then wouldn’t that be an argument to implement a competency test at a certain age? To be fair to those older politicians who are still sharp? To be fair since so many other professional occupations require competency tests? And this whole article to say that people can just vote out politicians they don’t like. What a new and scathing opinion.

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