Bryc Edwards: Is it time to lower the voting age?

Bryc Edwards: Is it time to lower the voting age?

Is it time to take youth participation in politics more seriously by lowering the voting age? Today’s student climate change strikes involved many thousands of disenfranchised youth. Along with the Make It 16 campaign supported by the Greens and the Children’s Commissioner, among others, it has put the question of the voting age clearly on the agenda.

The ongoing campaign to lower the voting age has been backed today by the Green Party, which announced it will introduce a private members’ bill seeking to lower the voting age to 16. This is best covered in Boris Jancic’s article, Green Party calls for 16-year-olds to get the vote.

As the article states, the increasing momentum to lower the voting age comes in the context of “a rising global trend in youth activism on climate change, led by figures such as Swedish activist Greta Thunberg.”

Green Party co-leader James Shaw said that 15- and 16-year-olds have other rights and these should be extended to participating in democracy: “They’re allowed to leave home, learn to drive, work and pay taxes, they should be allowed to elect politicians making decisions about their future”.

Shaw has denied that this is a self-interested move to increase the pool of Green voters, saying it’s more about “intergenerational justice”, arguing that the decisions politicians are making are having a “huge” impact on the futures of young people and therefore they should have more of a say. Furthermore, he says he want young people to be influencing other parties: “The reason I’m really committed to this is because I want the other political parties to compete for the youth vote. Because that’s where you get the shifts in policy – not from a small party like the Greens”.

Talking to 1News, Shaw also made the argument: “Increasingly across the world, we are seeing switched on young people who are desperately unhappy with the decisions political leaders are making about their futures. With the climate change crisis upon us, millions of young people around the world are taking to the streets demanding to be heard by political leaders” – see Anna White’s report: Should 16-year-olds vote? Greens push to lower voting age.

Children’s Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft is also onside with the proposal:  “Young people seemed to be the least engaged in New Zealand’s democratic process, yet they have the most invested in our future… Children and young people under 18 have no other way of influencing policy. If they voted and had a lobby, I’m convinced our policy for under 18-year-olds would significantly improve.”

For more on Becroft’s views, see Anna Bracewell-Worrall’s report, Children’s Commissioner backs campaign to lower voting age. In this, Becroft says: “We grey-haired old men and women need to know the world’s a changing place… Young people are much more alive to the issues. They are much more schooled-up on the issues.”

Green MP Chloe Swarbrick is also quoted, putting the case: “When you’re younger and trying to find your place in the world, you’re far more likely to be looking creatively and with greater curiosity about how we construct a better world for all of us.”

Green MP Golriz Ghahraman has submitted a private members’ bill, named the. “Strengthening Democracy Bill”, to which she has now added the proposal to lower the voting age. She explains that there is a need to have younger people involved in voting because they have a different experience to bring to politics: “Young people are experiencing the healthcare system, the justice system, housing, differently than older people” – see Dan Satherley and Heather McCarron’s Greens back lowering voting age to 16.

The same article explains that National is opposed to lowering the voting age, with their youth spokesperson Nicola Willis saying, “You can’t marry at 16, you can’t buy alcohol at 16, you can’t serve in the army at 16 and I don’t think you should be able to vote then either.” According to this report, “Willis denied National’s opposition to the change was because young people tend to support Labour and the Greens, rather than National.”

For an earlier report and more explanation of National’s opposition, see Dan Satherley’s National opposes lowering the voting age. In this, Willis says “Eighteen is widely considered to be the age of adulthood in New Zealand”, and “I think there’s a wonderful right of passage. You turn 18 and you’re an adult, you’re recognised as such by society and you have that right to vote.”

Willis also points out that there are many other ways in which young people can participate in politics without voting: “That includes presenting to select committees, bringing petitions forward… it includes lobbying and petitioning their local MPs and Members of Parliament, it includes the right to protest. So I’d argue that youth should and do have a voice, but a vote isn’t necessary.”

The Make it 16 campaign to lower the voting age has now launched legal action with the High Court on the basis that the current voting age of 18 was “unjustified age discrimination”. Aided by lawyer Graeme Edgeler they are seeking the court to “declare it inconsistent with the Bill of Rights Act” – see Felix Desmarais’ ‘Make it 16’ campaign launches, taking case of voting rights of 16-year-olds to court.

This article also explores other parts of the world that have lower voting ages than New Zealand, reporting that “There are at least 16 places in the world where 16-year-olds can vote” – for example, Scotland and Austria, where the age threshold has recently been lowered. Some other interesting arrangements exist: “In Bosnia and Herzegovina, you can vote at 16 if you are employed.”

Journalist Felix Desmarais makes his own case for lowering the age in an opinion piece: If 16-year-olds want to vote, who are we to say no?. He takes on the argument that young people aren’t adequately equipped to make electoral decisions: “There are plenty of people over the age of 18 who are not informed enough or mature enough to vote. I’m sure you can name three off the top of your head. But they can and do vote, because that’s how democracy works. One person, one vote – even if we don’t agree who they might vote for.”

For another very good argument for change, see the Make it 16 national spokesperson Oli Morphew’s A 14-year-old on how to rescue politics. She points out that “Our country denies the right to vote to around a fifth of its population on the basis of age” and argues that “If you’re going to deprive someone of their rights, you’d better be completely assured of the reasons you’re doing so, and equally sure that it’s the right thing to do. There is no good reason why depriving 16 and 17-year-olds of the vote.”

Morphew says that there is a problem of youth under-representation and relevant policy issues not being adequately dealt with by the politicians: “Currently, in parliament issues are not debated from a youth context because of the lack of voting power we have as a demographic. This is the vicious cycle that prohibits true representation of youth in politics.”

Similarly, see Mair Gibbs and Ruby Vidgen’s ‘Politics is everything’: Two teenagers make the case for lowering the voting age.

Many New Zealand political scientists also support the lowering of the voting age. For example, Waikato University academic Patrick Barrett says: “If more young people don’t vote we are going to end up with policy being made mostly by people 50 years and older, with the interests, perspectives and concerns of young people not being taken into account” – see Ellen O’Dwyer’s Call to lower voting age in New Zealand to 16.

There are many arguing that the dominance of certain demographics, especially older age groups such as “baby boomers”, means that the New Zealand political system is now broken. For example, blogger Martyn Bradbury makes this argument: “I would suggest that Boomers don’t really give two shits about climate change because they will be dead before the real apocalypse hurts them and because the political system is owned by Boomers and the property speculating middle classes, they have zero interest in doing a damned thing to change the the system they have profited from. That’s why Politicians do nothing real with climate change legislation” – see: Of course we should lower the voting age to 16 (and 5 other ways to make NZ Democracy better).

Finally, Liam Hehir believes there are problems with lowering the voting age, and also questions why implementing another arbitrary age threshold is the answer. He makes the case for getting rid of the age limit entirely, and handing the proxy vote for youths to their parents via “Demeny voting” – see: Voting for children, not by children.