In last week’s leaders’ game show styled election debate, the two candidates were asked for their views on lowering the voting age. As expected, National’s conservative Judith Collins ruled out extending the franchise to those aged 16 and over, from the current 18 years. But it was perhaps also predictable that Jacinda Ardern did not support the proposition either. Liam Hehir says she has correctly read general public opinion, “She understands that a cautious, even conservative approach will keep her in the Beehive”. Surveys reveal that most respondents believe 18 is the correct age to be able to vote. So there’s no widespread mandate for change, especially from those who already have the power. This will be disappointing to those, especially the young people, who look to Jacinda as a beacon of political equanimity, a political icon, all compassion, empathy and fairness – ‘the patron saint of progressivism’, and those who, inspired by her leadership, want a stake in the political system, and our combined future too.
Jacinda didn’t reject lowering the voting age outright. She suggested that when we have civics education in schools, it would be more appropriate to lower the vote. It doesn’t explain though, why civics education would be necessary, for young people to vote at age 16, but not at 18. Nor does it explain why legions of older voters can be trusted with a three-yearly vote, regardless of their political knowledge, education or thinking capacity, but young people with a longer stake in the future, can’t. It also doesn’t explain what level of civics education might be necessary, and what level of understanding or proficiency is required. Is it enough to just have civics taught in schools, or should voters have to pass some sort of test? And if it’s about political and civic understanding, then surely the 16 and 17 year olds who are behind the ‘Make it 16’ campaign and its High Court challenge to lower the voting age, should be eligible, and potentially others, older than 18 or even 80 may not. Age in itself is no guarantee of competency, and neither is the mere act of having civics education in schools. If we had a competency test for political participation, then many of our current voters – and politicians and candidates, would possibly fail, and, given the wisdom of the idealistic and the innocent, some children might make better decisions. And wouldn’t being given the opportunity to vote, be the best civics education you can get?
Others in opposition to a lower voting age warn that young people are vulnerable to the influence of their parents or teachers, and may make mistaken decisions. There’s no age limit on vulnerability or susceptibility to influence, or on making mistakes. What’s a “correct” political vote anyway? Is a mistake, when one votes for political actors against your own class interests (say voting for National even though you’re a manual labourer, or voting for Labour even when you’re a business owner?, or because we all have an interest in a healthy environment, is it a ‘mistake’ to ever not vote Green). And really, what’s the worst thing that could happen with a ‘mistaken’ vote, when an election outcome is not even dependent on the simple aggregate of everyone’s votes, where policies are binding, but more contingent on who can get first past the post by forming a Coalition with a minority party, as in the last election?
Unfortunately, the reasons for not giving people under the age of 18 the vote, are reminiscent of the reasons for not giving the vote to women, or ethnic groups, or to people in prison, or who don’t own land. Denying the vote to these groups, and to young people, is the exercise of power arbitrarily denying fundamental rights to citizens – that equal power, theoretically to democratic participation, in both those who govern us, and in decisions about our future.
Another reason given for not conceding the vote to young people, is that around 1/3 of those aged between 18 and 34 don’t vote anyway. A disproportionately high number of young people who already have the ‘privilege’ of voting, don’t bother – especially those who are Maori, Pasifika and Asian. Also, recent migrants, young rural people, the low paid and those with low educational achievements, – the already marginalised, are also less likely to vote. However, given how little an individual vote matters, maybe non-voting is the most rational decision. It can also be an act of political power, an exercise in protest rather than apathy or laziness as sometimes claimed.
Because voting in itself doesn’t make much difference, and others feel more effective power is expressed through direct action, to which there is no age limit, many of those young people who already can vote, don’t bother, so there’s not much harm in extending the franchise further. There are also other good reasons for giving young people the vote, whether they do or not. Most likely, new voters will discover that no matter who they vote for, systemic power gives voters, and politicians, less power than corporates, and voting is a symbolic act that gives you the impression that it matters, but in fact, the realm of political possibility is more narrow than ever.
We are less political animals than we are economic animals, and our relative power is determined more by our status and situation in the economy, than it is by who we vote to lead us. And even the Prime Minister’s power is circumscribed more by global political economy, historic power structures and world trade agreements, than it is by who votes for him or her. What is worse than lowering the voting age, is perpetuating a myth that voting matters much at all.