Democracy Week

What’s there to fear from lowering the voting age?

There are strong "for and against" arguments for giving younger New Zealanders the right to vote. Dr Bronwyn Wood examines both sides of the debate during Victoria University of Wellington's Democracy Week

The idea of lowering the voting age in New Zealand hasn’t tended to be popular. A poll in 2014 of nearly 3000 adults found that only seven percent thought it should happen.

The idea, however, has received more attention recently. The Scottish independence referendum is a good example of 16- and 17-year-olds seizing the opportunity to vote. Their turnout of 75 percent of their age cohort demonstrated considerable enthusiasm for this idea, with over 100 000 voting. This turnout rate was higher than the 18–24 age group (54 percent turnout) and the 24–34 cohort (72 percent turnout), begging the question of whether allowing the vote to younger teens could open up a new political landscape.

The idea of lowering the voting age has more recently been mooted in New Zealand by Children’s Commissioner Andrew Becroft. He argues that lowering the voting age could enhance turnout and ingrain the habit of voting.

Similarly, Rock Enrol Co-Founder Laura O’Connell Rapira suggests that young people’s different visions and perspectives deserve to be heard.

The primary reason this idea has been raised is in response to patterns of rapidly declining voter participation in many western democracies, and indeed in New Zealand. Concern about this following the 2014 election prompted the Electoral Commission to open up a national conversation to consider the implications of declining turnout on our democracy.

In light of this recent interest, I conducted a small poll last week that simply asked people to identify if they thought the voting age should be reduced to 16, why they thought this and their age.

One hundred and fifty three of the 303 people surveyed wished to lower the voting age to 16. An almost even for/against split was consistent across age brackets, including for under-18s, who made up almost a third of overall respondents and of whom, again, just over half wished to lower the voting age.

The written responses gave more detail about why this issue remains contentious.

Those who were against lowering the voting age gave three primary reasons:

1. Young people are not informed enough, too immature and lack enough life experience to vote
2. Young people are heavily influenced by adults such as teachers and parents (and therefore subject to coercion)
3. The ability to vote doesn’t match other responsibilities young people hold (as they are still largely dependent economically on adults)

Those who did want to give 16-year-olds the vote made the points that:

1. Young people deserve the right to vote as decisions about the future have greater implications for them than older people
2. Voting young will enhance the habit of participation
3. Young people are already paying taxes and should have a say on where their money goes.

On both sides, it was argued that if the voting age were lowered it needed to be accompanied by more civics and political education in schools.

The issue of lowering the voting age captures much of the complexity surrounding young people’s participation in society today.

On the one hand, there are ongoing concerns about young people’s competency, often resting on models of human development that suggest young people aren’t quite “right in the head” (to quote Nigel Latta) until they are about 25 years old.

On the other hand, young people are told they are the hope of the future and the ones who will solve society’s issues with their fresh ideas and innovation.

Paradoxically, both these positions fail to support the complex and ‘liminal’, or in-between, position young people find themselves in—of being members of society, holding many of the same responsibilities as adults, but not quite the same rights, assets or representation.

Lowering the voting age may be one form of acknowledging the under-representation of young people’s voice and rights in society today.

And what’s the worst that could happen? A groundswell of politically interested young people can’t be too threatening—or can it?

Dr Bronwyn Wood will chair the discussion ‘If young people voted’, featuring Children’s Commissioner Andrew Becroft, Rock Enrol Co-Founder Laura O’Connell Rapira, Victoria University of Wellington Students’ Association President Rory Lenihan-Ikin and Pacific Youth Leadership and Transformation Council Chair Josiah Tualamali’i, at Victoria University on Monday, July 31 at 12.30pm, as part of the University’s Democracy Week.

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