The level of voter participation in elections is an indication of the health of a democracy. Declining turnout across the democratic world, particularly among young people, has led to questions about the legitimacy of our governing institutions. It is time that New Zealand discusses the possibility of lowering the voting age to 16 in order to preserve our democracy and enable the effective hand-over of power to the next generation. We have to give the generation who follows us every opportunity to excel past us.
Earlier this week, UK Labour Party leader Ed Miliband pledged to grant suffrage to 1.5 million 16 and 17 year olds as one of the first acts of a new Labour government.
The UK holds its next general election in May and commentators say it will be an incredibly tight race. 18-24 year olds contribute to nearly 14 percent of the British electorate, so the “youth vote” will be a significant deciding factor in which way the polls swing. Worryingly however, recent research conducted by the Hansard Society reveals that only 12 percent of this constituency is planning on participating in the 2015 election.
Critics of Miliband’s pledge suggest that it is a ploy to capture this elusive youth vote because young people tend to lean Left, and they question the maturity of 16 year olds to make responsible choices with their vote. Supporters of the move argue that continuing to lock young people out is outdated and patronising, and the extension of franchise could turn around the declining trend of youth and general voter turnout, which can only be positive.
The UK is not the only democratic country that faces the phenomenon of low or declining turnout of its young people. New Zealand’s voter participation has been on a downward trend since the 1960s, and our young people are increasingly removing themselves from the voting process.
This is a problem because it reduces youthful representation in parliament and therefore in the important decisions that are made by this body.
With submissions to a Select Committee on our voting processes due in March, we need to debate the possibility of lowering the voting age here in Aotearoa.
New Zealand has led the world in suffrage rights since our first election in 1853 when male British subjects over 21 who owned property of reasonable worth were able to vote. This excluded Maori who tended to own land collectively, but in 1867 this was rectified with the creation of four Maori seats and the eligibility of all Maori men over 21 to vote for them. In 1879 all adult men were granted suffrage, so long as they were British subjects and had lived in the electorate for six months or more. Most notably, in 1893 we became the first country where women over 21 won the right to vote.
The baby boom after WWII saw an increase in New Zealand’s young population. When they began being sent off to fight in Vietnam in the 1960s there grew a greater focus on the political rights of young people: If they were old enough to kill and be killed then it was argued that they were also old enough to vote. Legislation was passed with little opposition, resulting in a reduction of the voting age to 18 in 1974. This brought us into line with a number of other similar countries and opened the ballots to more than 100,000 young people previously disenfranchised.
Forty years later we are lamenting the declining registration and turnout of young people, investing resources into research and campaigns to turn it around, hosting political panels and debating the issue on social media.
It is time to consider lowering the voting age to 16 and opening up our representative democracy to those who are not currently well represented.
Compared to other OECD countries, our overall turnout of the voting age population is fairly strong. However, although the 2014 elections saw a slight increase since 2011 we do face a declining trend, especially in the 18-24 age bracket. Young people are over-represented in the declining turnout figures, which makes them under-represented in parliament and the decision-making processes of our institutional democracy.
In the 2008 general election, 19 percent of young people between 18 and 24 did not enroll to vote, nearly as many as all of the other age groups combined. Less than half went to the ballot to cast their vote on Election Day. In 2011, 42 percent of eligible young voters did not turn out, compared to just over 70 percent of people over 30. Compare that to only 5.2 percent of non-voters in the 65+ age group.
The statistics are not yet available for 2014 but we can assume that they will be similar. Two weeks out from the September 20 election, nearly 200,000 young people under 30 were still not enrolled despite historic efforts from non-partisan campaigns like RockEnrol, the developers of On The Fence and Ask Away, the Electoral Commission and political parties.
This disinclination to vote has created a prevailing and incorrect perception that young people are too focused on their own lives, that they are selfish and apathetic.
The term “apathy” is bandied about too easily in descriptions of this generation and its voting habits, but as a social sciences teacher of teenagers I know that many young people really do care about the world and their place in it. Every day I am amazed at the perceptiveness, interest and frustration of my students. Making young people wait squanders their energy and passion. They have few avenues to participate officially until they are 18, by which time they find other ways to do so that do not necessarily involve voting. My experience in the classroom and beyond is supported by other anecdotal evidence and studies that show that it is overwhelmingly young people who are involved in volunteer and advocacy organisations.
At the Electoral Commission’s “Valuing Our Vote” conference earlier this year, University College of Dublin’s David Farrell referred to Russel Dalton’s book “The Good Citizen”, which acknowledges the generational differences in voting behaviour. Older citizens tend to vote out of a sense of civic duty, in the same way that they might pay their taxes on time and always cross at the lights. Our new generation is engaged and active in non-electoral forms of participation. They might jaywalk if there is no traffic and they do not necessarily vote even though they might care about the issues. Instead, they are more likely to volunteer, share petitions on social media, boycott products etc.
We are undergoing a democratic evolution with behavioural changes in our society. Institutional reforms need to happen to keep up with this. Democracy is not necessarily under threat, but we need to be awake to these changes and adapt to meet them.
It has been said that excitement over this issue masks a deeper problem, that young people are disengaged from politics for many reasons, few of which will be resolved simply by allowing them to tick a box at the polling booth. But participatory and representative democracy are useful additions to each other. Politics is more than just voting. We need to incorporate it into our everyday lives. Lowering the voting age could enable this to happen more easily.
Russell Brand calls for a boycott of the voting system, and while I agree with many of his sentiments about the need for radical change, this one is fairly unhelpful. If young people are excluded from the system then they will not be represented in the system. It is essential to work for change both within and outside it.
There are a number of reasons why younger generations do not vote and feel excluded from the democratic process. We need to investigate why young people are not voting and make sure that there are incentives for them to do so.
The blame is too often put on the non-voters themselves rather than used as a tool to reflect on what we can improve on in our institutions that will encourage young people to participate in them.
We have to be careful not to generalise the youth vote, but rather take a more intersectional approach to youth participation. As with all age groups, young people are diverse in their backgrounds, interests and values.
There are clear links between ethnicities or countries of origin and voting habits, as well as socio-economic factors. Even though ticking two boxes once every three years is inexpensive, inequality has a significant impact on the rate of voter turnout. A University of Auckland study shows the link between income and voter participation. People are ten times more likely to vote if they are wealthy, but if they are aware of their comparative deprivation then they are up to 50 percent less likely to vote. In a country where inequality is rising and the government is doing little to fix it and a lot to ignore it, it is no wonder that people who face financial struggles do not engage in electoral politics. How can they become informed enough or care enough when they have to focus on how to pay their bills on less than a living wage? Why should they bother to vote if nothing changes for them?
Dr Bronwyn Hayward, a senior lecturer in political science at the University of Canterbury, recognises this and disagrees with the idea of young people being naturally apathetic. “We use the shorthand apathy, but actually none of our research is really showing it is apathy. There are really serious issues about unemployment, a lack of income, about the inability to read – these are really basic issues that affect people’s ability to vote and their confidence to vote… that ability to feel like ‘I can have a say, and when I vote it will make a difference’.”
Unless people can see the relevance of politics to their daily lives and the influence that their participation will have on this, then their incentive to go to the polls is lacking.
Lowering the voting age to 16 would challenge political parties to aim not only their election campaigns but also their policies at the new generation. With 95 percent of over-65s voting compared to less than half of under-24s, it is clear which age group parties target for easy votes.
This means that the pressing issues which will affect us for the next hundred years in our lifetimes, such as rising inequalities, irreversible climate change and mass surveillance, are placed to the side in favour of policies that will garner votes from our grandparents. Our grandparents are also invested in the future of their grandchildren, but it can seem sometimes that our political representatives are not.
Our political representatives should bear a lot of the responsibility for the disinterest of young people in the system that employs them. Political parties need to step up their game and meaningfully appeal to young people and involve them in the electoral process.A self-perpetuating cycle of mutual neglect has been created. Youth do not vote because the parties do not appeal to them. The parties do not appeal to youth because they do not vote.
The fault does not lie with young people, but with those who are appealing for their vote. We need to give young people something to vote for.
If you have ever watched Parliament TV, the disinterest in parliamentary politics shown by young people would make perfect sense to you. Young people do not have the opportunity to take part until they are 18 because it is said that they lack the maturity, often by individual politicians who hypocritically act like the most petulant and disrespectful toddlers fighting in a sandpit. When our prime minister name-calls the opposition and revered international journalists, jokes about a sexual harassment case and dismisses valid criticism of his government by presenting his view that actually New Zealanders don’t care about these issues, it is clear that we need to have new role models to represent us.
Earlier this year the Guardian published research that showed that nearly half of Britons said they were angry with politics and politicians in a survey analysing the disconnection between British people and their democracy. The research found that anger with the political class and broken promises most riled voters, rather than boredom with the system. These sentiments were especially strong with younger people. Similar anger is present in New Zealand.
Political parties and the individuals within them need to do more than just campaign for youth votes every three years.
Jennifer Curtin, a lecturer in political science at the University of Auckland, agrees. “Young people as candidates, even though it’s symbolic representation in some ways… are more likely to voice young people’s concerns than older people, and so the more older people we elect, the more bias there is against young people in terms of the suite of policy choices and issues that get talked about in Parliament.”
Say what you like about the Internet Party, but I remain proud to have been a part of it because it brought something new and so desperately needed to electoral politics in New Zealand: a genuine desire to engage with young people and have them represented in parliament. We listened to them and asked them what they wanted, we didn’t dictate it from the top down. The election result obviously shows it was not as successful as it should have been, but the intention was good and I know that we did encourage interest and participation from people who had never been inclined to get involved before. We were committed to fighting for issues that are relevant to this new generation, our marketing campaign was targeted at young people and most importantly, the average age of our candidates was just 33. The Internet Party may not have representation in parliament, but we did set a precedent.
Some countries have also recognised the need to include young people in political conversations and as a response have lowered their eligible voting age to 16. The UK will not be the first to do so. It is generally heartening to observe the consequences of this extension of the voting base.
The Scottish independence referendum was the first official political contest in the UK in which franchise was lowered to 16. About 100,000 16 and 17 year olds registered to vote in the referendum, which is about 80% of the eligible total of that age group. That is nearly double the amount of 18-24 year old voters in New Zealand’s 2011 general election. Scotland’s first minister, Alex Salmond, declared that there was “not a shred of evidence for arguing that 16 and 17 year olds should not be allowed to vote”.
However, the perception that lowering the voting age in this instance was wholly positive needs to be qualified. The question of Scottish independence had dominated Scottish public life so much that it would have been surprising if young people had not been interested and actively engaged in the campaign.
Critics of a lower franchise tend to question whether 16 and 17 year olds are interested, knowledgeable and mature or responsible enough to vote.
Let us look then to Austria, who in 2007 became the only European nation with a voting age of 16 in nation-wide elections. So far the results have been encouraging.
A fascinating 2012 study from the University of Vienna is the first opportunity to examine the electoral participation of under-18s. It sampled voters between 16-25 years of age to assess the ability and motivation of these different ages to participate effectively in politics.
In summary, there is little evidence that young people under 18 are less motivated to engage in electoral politics than older age groups. The results show that interest in politics is not particularly low for under-18s, but there is some indication that their political knowledge is insufficient. It also demonstrates that the willingness of citizens under 18 to participate in non-electoral politics is high, and that they are particularly likely to take part in a political demonstration. When the authors looked at the question of trust in political institutions, they were surprised that under-18s display the highest level of trust in Austrian and EU institutions.
The study also reveals that even though turnout of under-18s is lower than other age groups in Austria, it is not primarily due to a lack of knowledge or interest, nor to disaffection and alienation.
The quality of voting choices for under-18s is another concern of critics. This is difficult to estimate, but this same Austrian study did analyse it and found no convincing evidence that the decisions made by voters under 18 are in any way of a lesser quality than those of older groups.
Allowing voting at 16 would send many positive signals to our young people. It would say, “We value your voice. We value your contribution. We believe you are responsible.” This positive reinforcement can only be a good thing.
Unfortunately, the Austrian electoral system has only been open to 16 year olds for seven years, so it is difficult to make assumptions about voting habits among teenage citizens. Some scholars argue that turnout numbers may improve in the long term as voters under 18 are more easily and enduringly encouraged to participate due to socialisation. Studies indicate that those who vote in their first election continue to do so throughout their lives, and that sadly the inverse is also true.
UK Labour’s Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan argued this week that “Getting the public into the habit of voting is clearly a key part of any solution if we are to raise the numbers of those who participate in elections. We need to get people hooked on voting at an early age because the evidence shows if you vote when you first become eligible you’re more likely to keep on voting for the rest of your life. Don’t vote when you’re young and you’re more likely to never vote. Changing the law and extending those eligible to vote would mean governments in the future would be foolish to ignore their voice.”
Critics of a lower voting age say that before we even talk about extending franchise to 16 and 17 year olds, we need to offer them more opportunities to acquire political knowledge, skills and experience.
Qualitative studies in New Zealand reflect the concerns of many young non-participants that they do not feel well enough informed about the mechanics of the electoral process, what the vote means for them and for the issues they care about. It is essential that we work to demystify the process and make electoral participation in politics relevant to their lives. Education is of paramount importance in this, and a lot of research says that education is an important predictor of the predisposition to turn out in almost all democracies.
There have been calls for compulsory civic or citizenship education in New Zealand schools in response to our declining youth turnout.
Sue Bradford put forward a Civics Education and Voting Age Bill in the private members’ ballot in 2007 when she was a Green Party MP. The main proposed effect of the bill was to lower the voting age to 16 and make civic education a compulsory part of the national education curriculum.
In her media statement, Sue argued that “At sixteen, young people can get married, have children, and be taxed. If we are serious about trying to get young peoples’ voices into the public arena and heard in places of power, they should be allowed to vote. Proportionally, more 16 year olds are in school than 17 or 18 year olds. By simultaneously making civics education part of the compulsory education curriculum we can grasp a great opportunity to make personally relevant to young people everything we are trying to teach them in class about the Treaty of Waitangi, our constitutional law and conventions and the rights and responsibilities of being a citizen. Lowering the voting age and teaching them civics can help young New Zealanders get on track to being better informed, more engaged citizens.”
A month after mooting the bill, Sue Bradford decided to withdraw it from the ballot because there was not enough public support at the time for it. She said that she remained passionate about it, but thought a long-term public discussion and education programme was needed before it had any chance in Parliament.
Seven years and three general elections later, there are renewed calls for compulsory civic education in schools.
We must be wary of relying on civic/citizenship education as a silver bullet to solve the problem of youth not voting. It can be a bit ticky-box and used to further conformity and patriotism as opposed to the development of independent perspectives and action if not done well or without critical analysis. However, education is essential if young people are going to understand how they can participate in the electoral system and why this is of such importance.
The New Zealand Curriculum (2008) already provides ample room for this within the social science learning area, which is about “how societies work and how people can participate as critical, active, informed, and responsible citizens.” Moreover, the vision, values, principles and key competencies that underpin the document aim to produce young people who are actively involved contributors to the well-being of New Zealand, participate in their communities for the common good and look to the future by exploring issues such as citizenship.
What is already being taught in classrooms needs to be identified and analysed before new programmes are established. This would include alignment with the Curriculum, the variety of engaging activities, informative and interesting resources, the use of experiential learning, the nature of classroom discussions about politics and the ability of teachers to go beyond traditional civics to critically analyse the status quo, assessment and measurement of outcomes as well an analysis of existing Electoral Commission and other education programmes.
When we talk about civic education, it is important that we look at how teachers have conversations about politics and civic issues in their classrooms, the external factors that influence how they do this and what they need to feel safe in discussing and debating such issues. It is essential that teachers are able to present impartial facts and maintain their professionalism, but teachers should also be encouraged to model what they preach, be honest and open about their views to spark discussions and be involved in social and political activity themselves.
But while schools are integral in forming the voting habits of young people, it cannot be entirely up to them.
Extending the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds would bring an invaluable voice to our electoral system. It would let young people know that their opinion is important and that they have a responsibility to act on it. It would bring greater representation of these opinions. It would help to normalise the voting process for these young people while they are still in school and living at home. It would recognise the other contributions to society that young people already make. It would strengthen our democracy.
It will not be the silver bullet to turning around the declining youth vote, but it will encourage other developments that are needed to happen alongside it, such as greater effort from political parties and schools to engage young people more significantly.
There is a lot to be discussed and debated on the question of lowering the voting age to 16, and we need to start talking about it now.
Miriam is a social studies and history teacher who is passionate about the need for our political system to be brought into the 21st century and engage its citizens in more practical and meaningful ways. Most recently she was the Internet Party candidate for Auckland Central and spokesperson for education and social justice issues.