Stuff: Call to lower voting age in New Zealand to 16

Written by Ellen O’Dwyer 14:29, Aug 11 2019

Waikato University academic Patrick Barrett argues New Zealand should lower the voting age to 16.

If the voters in Hamilton City Council’s 2016 election were represented by a room of ten people, only three of them would have voted and most of those would have been land owners, over 50 and privileged.

Only 33.6 per cent of those eligible voted, and that’s a whole lot of people – younger residents, new migrants and lower socio-economic groups – who are not voting, Patrick Barrett says.

The Waikato University senior lecturer in public policy and political science wants to see more young people voting and thinks lowering the voting age to 16 will help.

It’s about making sure political institutions, whether that be the council table or seats in the beehive, are more representative.

“If more young people don’t vote we are going to end up with policy being made mostly by people 50 years and older, with the interests, perspectives and concerns of young people not being taken into account.” 

Austria and Malta have done it and those countries haven’t been overrun by irrational and immature young people, he said.

The common arguments that 16 year olds can’t make decisions, that they only vote the way their parents do, could be applied to 18 year olds as well. 

“Eighteen year olds are typically influenced in their first vote by the way their parents have voted, that’s a well established insight.” 

Students were disappointed after Hamilton City Council rejected a climate change 'emergency', opting for 'urgency' instead. 
Front: Molly Huggan,15, Hillcrest High School.
MARK TAYLOR/STUFFStudents were disappointed after Hamilton City Council rejected a climate change ’emergency’, opting for ‘urgency’ instead. Front: Molly Huggan,15, Hillcrest High School.

Along with teaching more civics education in schools, it might mean voting becomes a “more normal and regular part of being a citizen”. 

Many young people don’t feel local politics is relevant, but it’s the level of government closest to us, Barrett said. 

It’s about the city young people live in now and the future city they’ll inherit.

Councils deal with issues around housing, the environment, public spaces and climate change, he said. 

“And many councils are reluctant to take on those future-focussed issues seriously.”

This month, young attendees of Hamilton City Council’s climate change meeting had their hopes dashed when the council swerved around the term “emergency”, instead choosing climate change “urgency”.

Barrett believes better decisions will not only be made with more younger people voting, but with more younger faces around the council table, too. 

The signs of political engagement in the schools strike for climate change and the rise in young local body candidates are hopeful signs for an increased youth vote, Barrett said.

But it remains to be seen.

Secondary school students speak with Hamilton Mayor Andrew King at the council's climate change meeting.
MARK TAYLOR/STUFFSecondary school students speak with Hamilton Mayor Andrew King at the council’s climate change meeting.

Get voting

In the first of a three-part series ahead of local body elections, the university will be running a Getting Out to Vote event on Tuesday, August 13, at Gallagher Academy of Performing Arts, from 5.30-7.15pm. 

A panel discussion will involve Chloe Swarbrick, School Strike 4 Climate’s Hannah Huggan, Kelli Pike from Politics in the Tron, and a representative from Waikato Student Union.

This will be a chance for young people from around Hamilton to ask questions and discuss issues of importance to them, Barrett said.

There will also be information available on the practicalities of enrolling and voting.

Events like this aim to demystify local elections for young people, Barret said.

Politics is not boring and it’s not hard to vote.

It’s about instilling that sense of citizenship, something that is “caught, rather than taught”.

“You catch it from being a part of your community, from volunteering, from being a part of a rich civic culture.”

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