Matters Of Debate | Issue 16

Matters Of Debate | Issue 16

That the voting age should be lowered

This column is written by the Otago University Debating Society, which meets for social debating every Tuesday at 6pm in the Commerce Building

Affirmative, by By Squealer the Pig

Major political decisions are entrusted to voters through elections and referenda because the consequences of those decisions affect their livelihoods. Young people are disproportionately affected by many of these decisions, and it is unfair that they are arbitrarily prevented from having a say on these issues. Moreover, politicians are less likely to care about issues like access to tertiary education and climate change (which affect younger generations more) as youth voters aged 18-24 are already far less likely to vote. This means we need to take action to make this voting bloc larger so politicians have a greater incentive to pay attention. The voting age should be lowered to 16, which is reasonable as we recognise 16-year-olds have enough competence to drive and to choose to leave school—so it is fair to judge them competent enough to vote at this age. 

The main argument in favour of extending voting rights to 16 and 17 year olds is that they have a right to have an impact on election and referenda outcomes. These decisions have an impact on young people, so it’s only fair. 

There does need to be a cut-off somewhere though, as it’s very unlikely that most young children will be able to understand how voting works and how to approach a decision. 16 is a good middle ground. At that age, young people have completed (or are near completing) the minimum required schooling in New Zealand. It is likely they will be capable of understanding how our political system works and be able to make an informed choice about which politicians better represent their interest. 

Secondly, lowering the voting age is likely to increase voter turnout and make young people more likely to vote in the future. Studies demonstrate that voters who have voted once are more likely to vote again—it’s formed as a habit. Schools can be useful in creating social pressure on young people to vote if they have the opportunity at age 16, as it’s likely there is more room in the curriculum to teach 16 year olds about politics and how our system of government works. Students are more likely to pay attention because it’s now relevant to them: if they actually get to vote in real life, that information is useful to them. Higher voter turnout sustains our democracy, and this is one way to increase it. 

Negative, by Old Major

The affirmative side of this debate acknowledges that there needs to be some cut-off for when we consider a voter likely to be ‘informed’. It’s true that some 16-year-olds would be perfectly informed voters, perhaps more so than older voters. However, society needs to draw the line at the most appropriate point for the majority of people. Granting the right to vote at age 18 makes the most sense. 

The first reason for keeping the voting age the same is that 18 is considered the age at which one receives the privileges of adulthood as well as the responsibilities. You are allowed to purchase alcohol and sign contracts, but you are also expected to think for yourself—that’s why we hold all 18-year-olds fully responsible for their own decisions. 16-year-olds may be capable of making decisions, but we still consider their parents ultimately responsible for the consequences in the vast majority of circumstances. 

Keeping the voting age consistent with the other markers of adulthood is really important, because we need to create a social norm that voting is an adult decision. That means you don’t rely on what your school or your parents tell you about how to vote, you’re expected to think through the decision yourself. Even if that means young voters (18-24) generally vote less because they don’t care and their school/parents don’t tell them it’s important, that’s actually fine – they can probably figure out that not voting undermines their right to complain about government decisions affecting them. 

The second argument for keeping the voting age at 18 is that young people are uniquely vulnerable to external pressures. The vast majority of 16 and 17-year olds still live with their parents and attend school, so won’t be exposed to political discussion outside the classroom or the family dinner table. This is problematic because those authority figures (particularly parents) may have their own political views that 16- year-olds may accept without questioning. 18-year-olds are more likely to become independent, by attending university and/or having to start working in order to provide for themselves. This independence gives them more life experiences that give them a personal interest in how the government works and what political parties can do to make your life better. This ensures voters are more likely to make decisions themselves. 

This article first appeared in Issue 16, 2016.
Posted 12:24pm Sunday 24th July 2016 by Otago University Debating Society.