A lower voting age would be fairer and more consistent

Lowering the voting age to 16 would be fairer and more consistent, and would encourage young people to engage with politics, argues Hai Xin.

I propose that article 86 of the proposed Constitution of Aotearoa New Zealand, which preserves the current voting age of 18, should be changed to allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote. Two lines of argument will be covered in my proposal.

Consistency with other rights

An often-repeated argument for lowering the voting age to 16 is consistency with the other rights and responsibilities that are conferred at 16. In New Zealand, these include leaving school, paying tax, consenting to sex and marriage, and obtaining driving and gun licences.[1]  It is reasoned that the fact that 16 year olds have these rights and responsibilities indicates that, in the eyes of the law, they are considered able to make responsible and rational choices.[2] This consistency argument has been criticised for “suffer[ing] from inattention to the complex reasons which guide the allocation of legal rights.”[3] In response to that, I advance that it is precisely the nature of the right to vote that indicates that it should be widely conferred. The Supreme Court of the United States expresses it well in holding that:[4]

“[N]o right is more precious in a free country than that of having a choice in the election of those who make the laws under which, as good citizens, they must live. Other rights, even the most basic, are illusory if the right to vote is undermined.”

The fundamental importance of voting rights in a democratic country means that they should be widely enjoyed by citizens. Just as the voting age was lowered from 21 to 20 in 1969, and then to 18 in 1974, it might be appropriate in the present time to lower it to 16. This concept of adaptability in the law to respond to changing demographics lends strong support for lowering the voting age, in addition to the ideal of consistency in the law in its treatment of rights.

However, those against lowering the voting age raise concerns about the lack of political maturity of young voters, referring to the lack of political interest and knowledge that might lead to an uninformed vote choice.[5] Regrettably, the scarcity of domestic research on such topics makes it difficult to address these concerns. But, surveys carried out during the 2014 Scottish independence referendum found that 16-17 year olds showed similar political interests to adults, used a great variety of information sources and engaged in extensive discussions with family and friends.[6] Also, survey results from Austria show that there is no significant difference in political interest between 16-17 year olds compared to older first time voters in general elections.[7] These findings suggest that, at the very least, 16-17 year olds in New Zealand have potential to develop the requisite political maturity to vote.

Naturally, the rate at which political maturity develops varies from individual to individual. Lowering the voting age to 16 would enable those 16-17 year olds who already possess sufficient political maturity to fully participate in the democratic process. Additionally, for those 16-17 year olds that are slow to develop political maturity, the experience of voting would enhance their individual development and help to reduce the disparity in political maturity.

Creating a habit of political engagement

The fundamental role of voting in legitimising government power is reflected in art 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government”.[8] Yet, New Zealand, like many other established democracies around the world, is seeing a serious decline in electoral turnouts.[9]

Of particular concern is low youth turnout. In the 2011 General Election, the percentage of non-voters in the 18-24 age group (42 per cent) was over three times that in the 45-64 age group (13 per cent) and eight times that in the 65-and-above age group (5.2 per cent).[10] This is problematic in several ways. With long futures ahead of them, young people have the most at stake when it comes to important issues like climate change, debt, inequality, and paying for an aging population. The persistently low youth turnout means that young people’s interests are not effectively represented in politics, which can result in long lasting, even permanent, detriment to society.

Another important issue relates to habit-forming. Studies consistently show that “both voting and not voting are habit forming activities such that declining turnout amongst new voters will have long term consequences.”[11] Over time, those who initially developed a habit of non-voting would accumulate in the older age brackets over time. Therefore, low youth participation can lead to low overall participation in elections. If the trend persists, New Zealand is predicted to see turnout rates of around 50 per cent for general elections within the next three decades.[12]

Crucially, lowering the voting age to 16 has the potential to reverse the trend of low youth participation and improve overall participation. Helena Catt, former Chief Executive of the Electoral Commission argues that “the most likely way to stop the decline in adult political participation is for students to acquire the habit at school.”[13] There are two related aspects to this argument. Firstly, schools are well-placed to educate youth about political institutions and ways to engage with them, such as voting. The primary goal of civics education should be to promote active and responsible participation, and this should involve setting up structured processes to guide youth in making their first vote.

Secondly, compared to 16-17 year olds, 18-24 year olds are more occupied with various pressures associated with the transitional nature of that period in a life cycle, such as moving between addresses that would make registering more burdensome.[14] The relative stability of 16-17 year olds makes voting easier for that cohort from a practical perspective. In short, the school and home environment can work together to intuitionalise the practice of voting, and to help create a lifelong habit of political participation.

To conclude, I believe there is a strong case for lowering the voting age in New Zealand from 18 to 16, and art 86 should be accordingly changed.


Notes

[1] Community Law Manual Online “Legal ages: when you can do what” Community Law <www.communitylaw.org.nz/community-law-manual/chapter-9-youth-rights/legal-ages-when-you-can-do-what-chapter-9>.

[2] Alex Folkes “The Case for Votes at 16” (2004) 41(1) Representation 52 at 53.

[3] Tak Wing Chan and Matthew Clayton “Should the Voting Age be Lowered to Sixteen? Normative and Empirical Considerations” (2006) 54 Political Studies 533 at 541.

[4] Wesberry v Saunders 376 US 1 (1964) at 17.

[5] Eva Zeglovits and Julian Aichholzer “Are People More Inclined to Vote at 16 than at 18? Evidence for the First-Time Voting Boost Among 16- to 25-Year-Olds in Austria” (2014) 24(3) Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties 351 at 353.

[6] Jan Eichhorn and others “Young people’s attitudes on Scottish Independence” (Research project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, University of Edinburgh, 2014).

[7] Zeglovits, above n 5, at 253.

[8] Universal Declaration of Human Rights 217 A (III) (Adopted by General Assembly Resolution 217 A(III) of 10 December 1948), art 21(3).

[9] Helena Catt “Children and young people as citizens: Participation, provision and protection” (paper delivered in the symposium ‘Citizenship: learning by doing’, University of Otago, July 2005).

[10] Electoral Commission “2011 General Election Voter Turnout Statistics”

<www.elections.org.nz>. See also Helena Catt and Peter Northcote “Prompting participation: can a personalised message to the newly enrolled have an impact on turnout?” (paper presented to the Australasian Political Studies Association conference, University of Newcastle, September 2006).

[11] Catt and Northcote, above n 10, at 3. See also Mark N Franklin Voter turnout and the dynamics of electoral competition in established democracies since 1945 (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2004).

[12] Catt, above n 10.

[13] Catt, above n 10.

[14] Franklin, above n 11.

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