Tony Stevens is a YWRC employment advocate, and educator; with a fierce interest in democracy done right.
If the school strikes for climate action last week are anything to go by, lowering the voting age to 16 will see an influx of passionate, informed citizens injected into the electorate.
Nearly 200,000 Kiwis took to the streets on Friday to force climate action onto the agenda and the majority of them were under 25. I participated in my local march and at times it felt like being in the epicentre of an unbridled whirlwind of passion and righteous fury.
Sixteen year-olds armed with loud hailers screaming “WHAT DO WE WANT!?” and a chorus of thousands responding with “CLIMATE JUSTICE!”
If there is one positive I can take away from the growing sense of climate dread among young people, its the irrefutable evidence that they care about having a political voice. They know that their future is at stake and they are prepared to fight for it.
One potential consequence of giving young people the vote that excites me is the inevitable shift in policy direction. We all know politicians are fickle creatures with adjustable values that pander to their predominantly white, baby-boomer constituents. But with thousands of 16 and 17 year-olds joining the fray, politicians will be forced to adjust their politics to appeal to a significant demographic that could shift the balance of power.
Finally, we might have a politics that better represents who we are holistically and a system that is predicated on legacy and not how much taxes the middle-aged and above are prepared to pay.
One of the common criticisms of lowering the voting age is that young people are not “informed” or “educated” enough to make good voting decisions.
Therein lies the brilliance of bringing the threshold down to 16, which puts voting smack in the middle of the secondary school education framework. Putting the voting age adjacent to an educational context gives schools a delicious opportunity to educate students about our democratic process, culminating in a trip to the ballot box. Heck, we can even position ballot boxes at the schools themselves (some do already).
Students might not be informed at the outset but the mere presence of the opportunity to vote, and hopefully a supportive education system, will encourage them to get informed.
Sure, some students will take the piss, and some won’t bother, but how does that differ from the status quo?
Besides, stupidity doesn’t discriminate it across age groups – I’m sure you can think of many 18-plus-year-olds who you would prefer didn’t vote.
If we were truly concerned about intelligence being the metric for voting then we should impose an IQ test on prospective voters.
But we’re not going to do that because it’s irrelevant. It’s not about who they vote for, it’s about voting full stop and having a system that represents that views of all of New Zealand.
Also, if 16-year-olds can have sex, drive a car, rent a room, get a job and pay taxes – then they should get a say. No taxation without representation and all that.
Another exciting prospect relates to the voter turnout. It’s no secret that we have a low voter turnout at elections, especially at a local body level. Does that matter to you? It matters to me, so I say we should fix it! Lowering the voting age to 16 is not a silver bullet but it’s a damn big leap in the right direction. It will enable young people to establish early patterns of voting behaviour that will encourage ongoing participation throughout their lives. There is considerable psychological research that suggests people who establish early patterns are able to sustain them over a longer period and this is no different.
We did our own modest poll on lowering the voting age with about 250 people participating and the results were close. Forty-five per cent were against it while a slim but definitive majority of 55 per cent were in favour – and I think many more would be in favour if they had a greater awareness of the arguments for change.
Personally, I would sleep a lot easier knowing that young people had a hand on the country’s steering wheel. I’ll take naive optimism over pessimistic conservatism any day.
“Adults” have not voted in the collective good interest and our planet is turning into a microwave as a result.
So I say let’s do it. What are we afraid is going to happen? That they will vote against our interests? That young people might change the world?
I say they are the ones inheriting the world, and right now they are inheriting a mess.