Stuff: Let teenagers vote, it won’t change a thing

Written by Thomas Coughlan, 2 Oct 2019

OPINION: Amid the chaos of last Friday’s Climate Strike, which saw a pack of grown men including the eminently unqualified Mike Hosking and Jeremy Clarkson, rain criticism upon –  wait for it – a 16-year-old Swedish activist, a note of sense was struck by Green MP Golriz Ghahraman.

Ghahraman announced she would be amending her member’s bill to include lowering the voting age to 16. 

It’s a proposal worth listening to. 

Voting is one of our most basic rights and, like all other rights, you have to have a very good reason to limit it. 

Defamation, for instance, is a limit on our right of free expression. It recognised that free expression that causes harm to a person by spreading falsehoods should not be allowed. 

There’s no similarly good reason to keep the current voting age. The strongest argument for keeping the voting age at 18 is that it is an age at which young people reach an arbitrary level of mental competence required for voting. 

It’s a fair argument – no-one would suggest giving toddlers the vote – but at the same time, we also don’t look at stripping the vote from the elderly. 

Driving licences have to be renewed every two years after people reach 80. Would it be too much to ask seniors to resit Level 3 NCEA every couple of years to make sure they’re still sharp enough to vote? 

Of course it would.

I may despair at the prospect of spending my Christmas holiday teaching Grandma how to use the new SuperGold Card app, but I’d never want to take away her vote. 

It’s a right not just to have a say in choosing who governs you, but a primal way of voicing dissent in the government.

Politicians have been slow to voice any support for lowering the voting age. Most are against the move and the Greens are the only party that lends its full support. 

The voting age is a reserved provision of the Electoral Act, which means it would need a parliamentary majority of two-thirds of MPs for it to change. 

Parliamentarians shouldn’t be worried; history suggests it would actually change very little.

The climate strikes have raised the issue of whether teenagers should vote.
KEVIN STENT/STUFFThe climate strikes have raised the issue of whether teenagers should vote.

The census recorded just over 308,000 people aged between 15-19 in New Zealand on census night last year. 

The 18 and 19 year-olds in that category have the vote, leaving just the 15, 16, and 17-year-olds out in the cold.

But not even all of these people would be eligible to vote, as the census records everyone in the country on a given day, not just citizens and residents. 

Those who are eligible may not show up on polling day. Just 70 per cent of enrolled 18-24 year olds (230,000 people) cast a votet at the 2017 election. 

Minor parties will worry most about a change. Adding a raft of new voters matters when you’re focused on clearing the 5 per cent threshold. 

History tells us that mass enfranchisement would be unlikely to change the make-up of Parliament. 

The enfranchisement of women saw more than twice as many people vote in the 1893 election as in the 1890 election, yet the margin between the main two parties shifted by less than 2 per cent, with the Liberals winning 57.8 per cent of the vote in 1893, to 56.1 per cent three years before. 

Golriz Ghahraman has a member's bill to lower the voting age to 16.
SUPPLIEDGolriz Ghahraman has a member’s bill to lower the voting age to 16.

Mass enfranchisements have rarely shaken the core of an established political system and if they do, it happens slowly, rather than at a single election.

Politicians like to win elections. Each MP makes a Faustian pact to reconcile their own private views with what voters demand of them.

Changing the voting age wouldn’t break our parties or political system apart, but it would put different issues on the agenda – and in a much more pressing way. 

One issue in particular – climate change – would be bumped up the agenda. 

Until then, the striking students should keep demanding their political rights.

Sceptical boomers should perhaps listen to one of their own, Mario Savio, who as a student in 1968 led the free speech protests at Berkeley. 

He called on protesters to stop “the machine” that crushed free speech.  

“You’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels … upon the levers, upon all the apparatus,” he said.

“You’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!”

The subversive magic of strikes is that they show just how important it is that all those gears and wheels of our lives function. 

Young people are well within their rights to continue drawing our attention to the price they will pay if we don’t change the machine. 

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