Grumpy Old Man Rant: Against 16 Year-Olds Voting [New Zealand Politics]

OK. I suppose this makes me, officially, a crotchety old bastard. Or at least a crotchety old bastard at heart anyway – 36 isn’t that old. For an old person anyway.

The Greens want to lower the voting age in New Zealand from 18 to 16… and I think it is a bad idea.

voting-clipart

My basic objection is this. While 16 year olds have genuine interests that need to be expressed in a democratic society (so do 5 year olds, for that matter), I think people of that age are uniquely vulnerable to influence from parents and teachers. 18 year olds in New Zealand have generally left school, and are often out of the family home. 16 year olds? They’re in school, and are still living at home. They face a significant imbalance in power relationships, which, when combined with their relative youth, may well impact their ability to make an independent judgement. Moreover, even those teachers who are absolutely scrupulous in not politically indoctrinating their classes may come under intense and unfair external scrutiny – teachers have enough to worry about as is.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of highly independent and thoughtful 16 year olds, and plenty of highly dependent and frivolous 18 year olds. It’s just that we have to draw the line somewhere, and an 18 year old will, all things being equal, be able to engage with society as an adult in a way that a 16 year old will not. It’s arbitrary, and a bit messy, and there is no particular reason why someone of 17 years 364 days must inherently make worse decisions than someone of 18 years 1 day, but to my mind ’18 years’ is a good enough approximation of full adulthood. Lowering it to 16 just replaces one arbitrary line with another, and in any case, under-18s can still interact with the democratic process via letter-writing, public speaking, protests, et cetera. Voting is a complement to political action, not a substitute.

Those who favour lowering the voting age do like to cite the consistency angle. 16 year olds in New Zealand can have sex. Drive a car. Pay tax. Why not vote? Well, an 8 year old buying a chocolate bar from their local dairy is paying tax via GST – should 8 year olds vote? No taxation without representation! Moreover, the drinking age in New Zealand is 18, and there is no pressure to lower that. Why not? Could it be, perhaps, that society prefers to err on the side of caution in allowing access to alcohol, and that it considers 18 year olds mature in a way that 16 year olds are not? If so, one could certainly imagine a similar view of maturity being applied to voting for New Zealand’s all-powerful sovereign Parliament, even if it doesn’t necessarily fit with other cases. Fuzziness of adulthood is a fact of life. 17 year olds in New Zealand can have sex, but can’t buy beer… it’s inconsistent, yes. It’s also not the end of the world, and neither is the case of people being old enough to drive but not old enough to vote.

Then there’s the perennial argument about young people having to live with consequences of governmental decisions longer than their elders. It’s actually true on paper, of course, but it does not logically follow that this requires a lowering of the voting age. After all, a 2 year-old will likely have more years left to live than nearly everyone else… and few would give the vote to toddlers. And what of people dying of terminal cancer? Should the fact that they’ll only live with governmental decisions for another couple of months render their voice less important than a healthy person’s? Frankly, the ‘time left’ metric is a red herring. What we need instead is the age at which someone is competent to determine the representatives who make this country’s laws – and, as discussed above, I think there is nothing wrong with 18 being just such an age.

Finally, there are the cynical consequentialist arguments. That we, as a society, need to listen to the next generation… because they prefer a particular set of policy prescriptions over others. This argument is rarely expressed in such bald terms (‘let’s expand the franchise because it helps my policy aims’), but it hovers in the background of some discussions, and honestly, I find it highly disingenuous. The way in which 16 year olds will vote is irrelevant to the question of whether they should vote.

***

Well, that turned out longer than expected (clearly I’m old and rambling…). That said, I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with society having a debate about the voting age – it is an issue that will surface again in the years to come, and I note that certain people are already caught up in grand, sweeping, liberal visions of the future. For myself, I am not actually adverse to some reform (I think prisoners should be able to vote). My issue here is that there is a decent rationale for the voting age status quo.

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