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Are Older Voters Apathetic Or Just Bored?

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There’s an old joke in which an elderly voter is asked: “Are seniors ignorant, or just apathetic about politics?”

By Al Norman

There’s an old joke in which an elderly voter is asked: “Are seniors ignorant, or just apathetic about politics?” The senior answers: “I don’t know, and I don’t care.”

In 2000, the Gerontologistmagazine published an article by Robert Binstock, which suggested that “Contemporary politicians and their advisors focus on older voters as a pivotal segment of the American electorate. Some analysts predict that this preoccupation will intensify in the years ahead and the demands of older persons will dominate American politics.”

That prediction seems laughable today. In about a month, Massachusetts will elect a governor. There are no signs that either the Republican or Democratic nominees for this office see older voters as a “pivotal segment” of the electorate. In fact, they don’t seem to see seniors at all.

A scan of the “issues” pages on the websites of Gov. Charles Baker and challenger Jay Gonzalez offers very little content on elderly issues. Baker focuses on growing the economy, strengthen our schools, tackling the opioid crisis, supporting cities and towns, respecting the taxpayer, and reforming state government.

Gonzalez features criminal justice reform, education for all, the opioid crisis, transportation, an economy that works for everyone, government transparency, climate change, reducing gun violence, women’s economic opportunity, campaign finance reform, veterans and military families, and fixing our broken health care system.

On this last point, Gonzalez says: “Simply put, we need a single-payer system that is cheaper, simpler and better.” He promises todetermine the best path to a single-payer system … ensuring every single person in this state has access to the health care they need.”

Neither candidate uses the word “elder” anywhere in their list of issues. Neither candidate talks about the worries that keep seniors awake at night: the high cost of prescription drugs; the affordability of long term care — nursing homes or care at home; the long waiting lists to get into affordable, publicly-assisted housing. Neither candidate has anything of substance to say to seniors about their vision of how to improve the income security of older people in Massachusetts. The Commonwealth has the second largest percentage of elderly people who cannot afford to pay their daily household expenses — second only to Mississippi. It’s as if seniors are invisible to both major political parties in the Baystate.

This is ironic, since “older voters constitute a substantial proportion of voters today,” Binstock noted,  “and they will be a considerably larger proportion in the future because of the aging of the baby boom cohort.” In the 2014 Massachusetts Gubernatorial election, a total of 2.186 million votes were cast. Charles Baker beat Martha Coakley by only 40,165 votes, or less than 1.8 percent of the votes cast.

And 2.11 million registered voters stayed home — 49 percent of the voters didn’t care enough to vote. One estimate suggests that by 2020 roughly 30 percent of the electorate will be age 65 or older. Binstock quoted one Democratic pollster in 2000 as saying: “It’s virtually impossible to take back the House or win the presidency without taking back seniors.” In Massachusetts, it looks like no politician worries about addressing issues that might attract older voters.

Twenty years ago pundits said that when the 76 million persons in the baby boom cohort turned 65, preoccupation with older voters would intensify, and American politics would be dominated by the demands of older persons in the first half of the 21st century. But Binstock cautioned: “the political legitimacy of old-age interest groups has been eroding over the past 10 years.”

Do older people themselves really care about creating a cohesive “senior vote” that will influence electoral outcomes? Nearly two decades ago, Binstock predicted: “The major political parties and candidates for office, as in the past, will probably not diverge significantly from one another regarding policies affecting older people and the very large latent constituency of older voters will probably not crystallize into a cohesive political force.”

Regardless of who is elected the next governor of Massachusetts, seniors are not likely to be on the short list of public policy concerns.

Al Norman worked as a public policy activist in the elder care field in Massachusetts for 38 years. He can be reached at:


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