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SocietyNovember 29, 2018

Make it 16: a teenager on why we should lower the voting age

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Getty Images

Aren’t Can’t Don’t: Contrary to popular opinion, lots of young people care deeply about politics and are desperate to have their voices heard, writes youth journalist and activist Azaria Howell.

On September 24th, 2018, I rushed to the mailbox to see what I had received for my 17th birthday. To my delight, a card (that had doubled as lunch for a few snails) from the Electoral Commission had finally arrived. Walking back to my house, that bright orange logo shone in my eyes as I fantasised about all the ways I could make a difference when I could finally vote.

I had experienced the collective dream of many teenagers in this country.

If the voting age was lowered to 16, politicians would be far more likely to take youth opinions and issues seriously, as their votes (and their pay cheques) would rely on it. Unfortunately, right now the disheartening fact is that the youth voice is often ignored, all because we aren’t allowed to vote. Yet.

A lower voting age could be the key our country needs to make our participatory democracy genuinely participatory. The truth is in numbers, and statistics unfortunately show that there is a disconnect between young people and their beliefs making a boost to the ballot box. At the 2017 general election, 18-34 year olds had the lowest figures for voter turnout, with between 67% and 70% of all registered young voters actually having their say on election day, compared to 80% of registered voters overall.

Solving the disconnect between young people’s concerns and low voting statistics is the million dollar question, but lowering the voting age might just be a step in the right direction. New Zealand is a tight-knit community, so when something as major as a change in the voting age occurs, we’ll all hear about it. Whether on the news, from the journalists with voices more soothing than a cold drink on a summer’s day, or from your neighbor Dave with his quintessentially Kiwi accent, the word spreads quickly in the land of the long white cloud. Lower the voting age and you can bet young people will know about it. They’ll be excited, and ready to make history.

If you somehow weren’t aware, New Zealand was the first country to give women the right to vote. After the remarkable decision to change the law, voter turnout shot up, among all genders and age brackets. It’s just a prediction, but I think the cliché of history repeating itself will come true if we decide to lower the voting age to 16. The tsunami of new voters could possibly even be bigger than in 1893, thanks to the communicative power of social media.

A common argument against allowing adolescents a say is that we’re not mature enough to vote. While it’s true that not all young people are interested in politics and not all young people would actually vote given the opportunity, this is an issue among all age groups – voter turnout can always be higher.

From my experience as a Lime-scootering, avocado-consuming millennial, people my age truly do care about politics. Whether as active as emailing MPs to support the campaign to ban single-use plastics, or as passive as posting a vague Facebook comment about “Taxinda”, politics is at the forefront of the minds of young people, and our voices deserve to finally be heard.

Young people are eager to have their say on things that really matter to them. As a Youth MP and a member of the Christchurch Youth Council, I’ve attended countless events focused on enhancing the youth voice. It inspires me that at each and every event there are young people willing to share their opinions.

Some argue that young people don’t know enough about the world to allow them the right to vote, an argument that I think is simply absurd. We should be able to have a voice on issues that are impacting us, as we will inherit the hand-me-down decisions of the older generations’ votes. I would argue that young people know more about certain aspects of politics: we are the ones living out changes to NCEA and breathing the air others have polluted. We should be able to have an impact on the school we attend every day, or the bus that takes us home, in the form of a vote.

Aren’t Can’t Don’t is a Spinoff-Storybox series, made possible thanks to funding from New Zealand on Air

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