As today’s teenagers will bear the brunt of tomorrow’s problems, especially climate woes, some lawmakers think 16-year-olds deserve a say at the polls.
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When the New Zealand Supreme Court ruled last week that the voting age of 18 breached the human rights of younger people, it reignited the debate both there and in neighboring Australia.
The question of voting age has taken on a new dimension in the past few years as climate change becomes an increasingly pressing issue.
In New Zealand, the Supreme Court suit was brought forward by a group of young campaigners called Make It 16, who argued that young people should be able to vote on issues like climate change, which will have a disproportionate impact on them and their futures. A similar court challenge was launched in Canada last year, while young climate activists in other countries like the U.K. have also pushed to lower the voting age.
In Australia, independent MP Monique Ryan has said she plans to introduce a bill next year, while the Greens Party opened the issue up for debate in the Senate earlier this week.
“Young people are more politically aware than ever before,” Greens leader Larissa Waters said during the debate. They will, she added, “inherit a planet and an economy impacted by decisions that they have no say in.”
Faith Gordon, the deputy associate dean of research at the Australia National University law school, said that young people today are growing up in an increasingly unstable world, with the climate crisis, war in Ukraine and an increasingly precarious economy. At the same time, data shows that “government policies and spending are skewed in favor of older people,” she said.
At a time when political party membership across the board, globally, is on the decline, allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote may also encourage more young people to engage with politics, she said, adding that in countries that have allowed 16- or 17-year-olds to vote in some elections, they embraced the opportunity and voted in massive numbers. In the Scottish referendum in 2014, for example, she said, 16- and 17-year-olds voted at a higher rate than 18- to 20-year-olds.
Australia holds children criminally responsible from the age of 10, she noted, “so it does seem quite contradictory that we think they can form that judgment at that age, of right and wrong, but we don’t allow them to vote.”
Some academics have even suggested that the voting age should be even lower. David Runciman, a professor of politics at the University of Cambridge, has gone as far as to argue that children as young as 6 should be able to vote, using the argument that our aging populations have made our democracies “structurally unbalanced” and created a bias against governments that want to plan for the future.
But other social scientists have argued that there is no evidence that young people today are more politically engaged than those in the past, or that lowering the voting age would increase political participation.
And it’s unclear whether the debate now will lead to any substantial change. In New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said she will draft legislation to change the voting age to 16, and personally supports the idea. But a bill would need the approval of 75 percent of parliament to pass, and the opposition Nationals Party has said it does not see a “compelling case” for lowering the age. In Australia, too, Liberal senators have said that they “don’t see the need” to change the voting age.
What do you think? Should Australia and New Zealand lower their voting ages? Write to us at email@example.com.
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