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If you can vote when you're senile...

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Author: 

Wilbur Townsend

Our communities tell young people that they need to "take responsibility", that they need to "get involved", that they have unfulfilled civic responsibilities towards their schools, their cities and their country. Those same communities then go on to insist that youth cannot be trusted to vote, that such a right can only be afforded to "full members" of society - that us young people just aren't up to the task. Clearly, something is messed up.

The Young Greens believe that the current disenfranchisement of 16 and 17 year old young adults is wrong: we see a society that irrationally discriminates against its most vulnerable as fundamentally flawed. The current system insults the legitimacy of our democracy, marginalises young people, and leads to a systematic political bias against youth. That's why, since 2010, we've consistently advocated to lower the voting age to 16.

Let's face it - the current ban on youth voting is a little bit odd. It just doesn't seem to be consistent with the way we approach democracy: if someone wants to air their opinion in a ballot box, we normally say 'good on 'em' - whether you're intellectually disabled or a PhD, current law considers your right to the vote as equal. And that's great: we recognise that previous attempts to dictate a class' capacity to vote - such as restricting the franchise to people of a certain wealth, ethnicity of gender - were discriminatory, a biased shambles of democracy. In that light, though, there seems no reason to ban 16 and 17 year olds from voting; it's clear that the status quo is blatantly discriminatory. As someone who is proud of New Zealand's history of democracy - someone who is proud of our giving women the vote, of proportional representation and of our fundamentally accountable government - I find this aberration upon our democracy humiliating

We're telling young people that we do not consider their opinion worthy, and they're listening. Currently, of those young people who are allowed to vote, only three in four are even enrolled to be able to do so. When we encourage the myth that voting is a vital duty only to those who have reached a certain age, we discourage youth from engaging in democracy. Young people don't feel that the political system is a forum in which their grievances have any legitimacy, youth often see politics as solely something that old people do. By dropping the voting age, we'd be opening our arms to young people, insisting to them that their opinions are valuable.

The missed opportunity here is even more tragic given the opportunity high school provides to involve and educate young people about the democratic process. Lowering the voting age would allow 6th and 7th formers to vote when they're in school, providing an exceptional chance to make democracy real. The start of a life-long triennial habit would begin accompanied by education, encouragement, and an understanding of politics elsewhere unprovided. If we care about the long-term health of our political culture, then lowering the voting age is clearly a good thing.

So, a voting age of 18 is wrong, in that it insults both us, young people, and our democracy as a whole. But the current voting age has a more pernicious harm - it systematically biases our government, and so our society, in such a way that young people's welfare is ignored. It's obviously the case that young people have been continually disregarded by subsequent Governments; almost every area of policy - from climate change, to superannuation, to abortion law, to transport - bears semblance of this embarrassing truth. It's not hard to see why this is the case: when politicians know that they risk no electoral punishment in disregarding young adults' needs, yet know that a bias towards older voters would win electoral support, they cannot be trusted to do the right thing; government discrimination away from those with the greatest need and towards those with votes is inevitable. Lowering the voting age would be a step towards a more sustainable political system, one in which politicians must confront those who are suffering the burden from their policies, one in which politicians are empowered by a regard for the long-term.

The Young Greens' support for a drop to the voting age is inspired by a vision: Aotearoa New Zealand can be a country in which young people are respected and listened to; our society can be one in which the needs of us youth are taken into account. Our current tangent - a future in which young people continue to be side-lined by those currently with votes - is not a predetermined thing: New Zealand's voting age has been lowered before and it can been lowered again. Working to lower the voting age, the Young Greens are making progress towards a more equitable future.

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