Lowering the voting age: It all works better when everyone feels involved

12:54 pm on 3 December 2022
Signs around Christchurch

File image. Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

By Michele A'Court

Opinion - Democracy is a lot like helping out around the house - as soon as the kids show the slightest bit of interest, they should be heartily encouraged

Doesn't matter if they don't do it the way you would. It takes a while to master hospital corners and stack the dishwasher "properly" (as in "to your liking") but youthful enthusiasm should be tapped into and nurtured because society - like a household - works best when everyone feels involved.

I voted in my first general election in 1981. I'd been keen but too young in 1978, my last year at high school - though this hadn't stopped me researching who I'd vote for if I could. The National MP was a family friend (too conservative for my liking), the Labour candidate was a teacher at school (not a favourite) so I'd signed up at the local library to hear more about the chap standing for a new party called Social Credit.

He duly popped round to our house, bless him - a surprise for my parents who were active National Party members, and no doubt disappointing for him once he found out I had no vote to give him.

Not every kid will want their own "meet the candidates" private viewing, but it feels normal - should feel normal - to be curious about how the world works in terms of who is in charge, how they get there, and where you fit in that equation. This is what adolescence is about - making sense of social structures and placing yourself in part of something bigger.

We are going to be talking about the voting age for at least the next six months - a law is being drafted to lower the age to 16 after the Supreme Court declared the voting age of 18 inconsistent with the Bill of Rights Act. Parliament must either agree to lower the age, or argue 16- and 17-year-olds shouldn't vote.

What grounds might you have for that? Perhaps you think 16- and 17-year-olds are too immature to vote. In which case we might want to reconsider other things they do - like leave school, drive a car and pay tax. Also, if maturity is a pre-requisite for voting, we'd need a test other than date-of-birth - I've met some pretty flaky 39-year-olds.

Perhaps you think these 200,000 new voters will all be raving lefties who will skew the results - an argument which would surely reveal a lack of confidence in conservatives' youthful appeal. And maybe a ripple of progressive idealism would balance the curmudgeonly tide at the other end.

Or perhaps you think it is pointless because they'll vote the way their parents tell them to. This was an argument 130 years ago against women's suffrage (that effectively they'd double their husband's vote) so it's a rather dusty one. The assumption of parental influence would also suggest you've never had, or been, a teenager.

Instead, think about what we might capture by inviting 16- and 17-year-olds into the democratic process while they are curious, mostly still at home and going to school so in a relatively stable environment, surrounded by peers also learning. Engaged and actively involved.

This is not like lowering the drinking age - no one is going to get drunk on voting. Though there's evidence it is habit forming, that you are more likely to vote if you voted last time round.

Similarly, your teenagers are more likely to use the washing machine after you've guided them through it that first time. That dishwasher, though, is another story.

*Michele A'Court is writer and comedian. She writes books, columns and features; and performs in comedy clubs in New Zealand and overseas.

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