Bryce Edwards: The High barriers to lowering the voting age

Bryce Edwards: The High barriers to lowering the voting age

Sixteen-year-olds aren’t about to get the right to vote anytime soon. Despite yesterday’s Supreme Court declaration that a voting age of 18 violates the Bill of Rights, there are still many barriers to get over before the voting age could be lowered.

In fact, as a best-case scenario, youth voting campaigners are now setting their sights on 2029 as the first general election for 16-year-olds to vote in, and perhaps 2025 as the first time that they might be able to vote in local government elections. But to get an extended franchise by these dates would require that the following very high barriers be overcome.

1: Public opposition to lowering the voting age

The problem for advocates of lowering the voting age to 16 is the vast majority of voters disagree. Poll after poll shows that about three-quarters of the public is not yet convinced that it’s a good idea. The public has actually been more favourable to giving the vote to prisoners than they are to letting younger people vote.

A TVNZ Vote Compass poll in 2020 showed 70 per cent in favour of a voting age of 18 years, and 20 per cent favouring a lower age. Then a 1News Colmar Brunton poll showed a massive 85 per cent opposed lowering the voting age to 16. And Curia Research also polled on the question in 2020 and found 88 per cent favoured the status quo. A more recent Curia poll showed that 79 per cent opposed dropping the voting age. And back in August of this year, a Talbot Mills poll showed 66 per cent opposed, and only 28 per cent in favour.

It seems that those favouring change – largely those in political activism, journalism, and academia – are strongly at variance with wider concerns. The case for change simply hasn’t had the cut through yet, until it does, a change in the law is highly unlikely.

2: National and Act oppose lowering the voting age

The rightwing opposition parties are unequivocally against lowering the voting age. This means that when the Labour Government introduces legislation next year to lower the age to 16, it will fail. What’s more, it means that a future National-led government would be inclined to reverse any shift to a lower voting age.

Normally any significant changes to electoral law require some sort of cross-party consensus, and this just hasn’t yet been forged. Campaigners have focused more on judicial activism, which turns out to have achieved them a powerful win, but without actually convincing most of the political parties yesterday’s Supreme Court declaration becomes something of a moot win.

National and Act have the power to stymie any changes to the general election voting age because the Electoral Act is constitutionally entrenched, meaning a super-majority of 75 per cent is required to make changes in Parliament. Ninety MPs are required to vote in favour of such a change, which is not going to occur.

3: Labour Party caution

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has come out in favour of lowering the voting age to 16 years and has promised to introduce legislation in terms of general election voting next year, as the Government’s answer to the Supreme Court’s ruling. However, she has made the call safe in the knowledge that such legislation won’t be consequential, because it won’t be passed.

Cynics might see it as a smart move by Ardern. It ticks off a legal requirement to respond to the Supreme Court ruling, and keeps her onside with progressives who favour a reduced voting age, but at the same time it avoids actually changing the law and alienating the three-quarters of the public opposed to 16-year-olds voting. Quite simply, Labour can rely on National and Act to save them from achieving what they possibly don’t really want to win – an unpopular lowering of the vote.

The problem for Labour will be the question of the voting age for local government elections. This is now where attention is likely to shift. This is because the Local Government Act isn’t constitutionally entrenched, which means that only a simple majority in Parliament is needed to lower the voting age to 16. The Government can’t just rely on National and Act to block this change.

The pressure will therefore be on the Government to reform the Local Government Act immediately. Labour has no excuses not to do so and it will therefore be a real test of Ardern’s principles.

Pressure to reform the Local Government Act’s voting age has also been increased by the review that the Government itself commissioned. The recent Future of Local Government report also recommended a voting age of 16 years for local elections, making it more difficult for Labour not to progress this.

The argument of reformers is now that local elections could be a “trial” for a lower voting age. Or, put another way, by introducing a lower voting age in this less important level of government, it would be a good way for the public to get used to the idea, with the hope that it would lead the way to the public supporting a lower voting age for general elections too.

But is Labour too cautious to make this change? It’s likely to stymie this by trying to keep the voting age for both general and local elections bound up together. The Government might even kick for touch by arguing that it wants to hear back from the Independent Review of Electoral Law before making any decisions – who are not due to report until after next year’s election. This would effectively make the change too late to implement until much later elections.

The general convention – which Jacinda Ardern reiterated yesterday – is for the implementation of significant electoral law changes to only take place for the election after the next one. This would mean that even if the Electoral Law was changed in 2024 to allow 16-year-olds to vote, this wouldn’t occur until the 2029 general election.

4: The Appearance of politician self-interest

Much of the debate about the voting age is likely to be blocked due to apparent political self-interest. Quite simply, the age level for voting has a large impact on the support levels of the various political parties.

There is a general consensus that younger people vote in higher proportions for the parties of the left. This is why one of the Supreme Court judges, Stephen Kos, gave a dissenting opinion yesterday, saying that “Altering voter age is not a neutral political action”, and “Whichever direction it goes in is likely to benefit some parties disproportionately”.

This means that National and Act’s opposition to a voting age is partly driven by the desire to protect their own levels of support. Act leader David Seymour expressed this yesterday, saying: “We don’t want 120,000 more voters who pay no tax voting for lots more spending”.

Conversely, Labour and the Greens could be accused of wanting to lower the voting age for their own advantage. Stuff political editor Luke Malpass explains today that “most of the political upside would go to Labour or the Greens, meaning that a Labour or Labour/Greens Government could look pretty self-interested in making any such change. That’s because those younger voters tend to split 2:1 to the left (either Labour or the Greens)”.

Malpass calculates that lowering the voting age to 16 could result in 80,000 more votes (a 2.7 per cent increase), which “could result in an extra seat for the centre-left. In an MMP environment where elections can be close-run, this would amount to a small – but not insignificant – realignment of the electoral board in favour of the political left.”

Such motivations for lowering the voting age are likely to become more apparent in any developing public debate about reform. New Zealanders have been shown to use “fairness” as a clear criteria in approaching issues such as electoral reform, and so on this subject they might be very inclined to also regard the lowering of the voting age with suspicion – leaving reform to the distant future.


Dr Bryce Edwards is Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.  


Further reading on the voting age

Thomas Coughlan (Herald): Change to local body voting age possible – even likely(paywalled)
Michael Neilson (Herald): Parliament to vote on lowering voting age from 18 to 16, could see ‘differential’ system for local and general elections
Luke Malpass (Stuff): Which parties would a voting age lowered to 16 likely favour in Parliament?
Richard Harman (Politik): Supreme Court v Parliament (paywalled)
Liam Hehir: The disappointing but not surprising Supreme Court decision (paywalled)
David Farrar: Hehir on the Supreme Court and the voting age
Anna Whyte (Stuff): Lowering voting age to 16 likely to fail in Parliament
River LIn (1News): Luxon calls on voting age to remain at 18
Brent Edwards (NBR): Opposition unimpressed with Supreme Court decision on voting age (paywalled)
RNZ: Voting age 16 law to be drafted requiring three quarters of MPs to pass – Ardern
Tess McClure (Guardian): Ardern promises bill to lower voting age to 16 in New Zealand after discrimination ruling
Michael Neilson (Herald): Parliament to consider lowering voting age to 16 after Supreme Court rules ‘inconsistent’ with Bill of Rights
RNZ: Supreme Court rules in favour of ‘Make It 16’ to lower voting age
Stuff: Door for voting age change open after backers score win in ‘uphill battle’
Will Trafford (Whakaata Māori): Voting age should be lowered to 16 – Supreme Court
Zarina Hewlett (Today FM): The voting age: Keep it 18 or make it 16?

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