Lizzie Marvelly: Voting should start at 16

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Young people represent NZ's future so more should have a say in choosing who runs it.
At the last election only 72 per cent of those eligible exercised their right to vote. Photo / NZME
At the last election only 72 per cent of those eligible exercised their right to vote. Photo / NZME

Sometimes, when I read about climate change, out-dated and discriminatory adoption laws, and a Crimes Act that still includes abortion, I wish more millennials held positions of power. We should lower the voting age to 16.

I know. "What on earth do 16-year-olds know about running a country?" Which is almost exactly the point.

Young people represent the future of New Zealand. Each and every decision made by policy-makers today will impact us for the longest. Brilliant foresight and negligence alike have the potential to affect us for the rest of our [likely very long] lives.

Quite simply, we are the stakeholders with the most to lose or gain.

But in the pecking order of groups our leaders listen to, we're near the bottom. One can't help but wonder whether this is because so few of us vote.

In 2014, the National Party won 47 per cent of the vote, a solid showing that paved the way for a third term. As a result, the Government often claims it has a mandate to do as it sees fit - which is a compelling argument until you realise only 72 per cent of eligible voters actually cast a vote.

More than a quarter of New Zealanders of voting age did not vote to give the Government a mandate. Granted, they didn't vote for anyone, so we'll never truly know the will of the people. But when studies show that those who are younger, poorer, less educated and not Pakeha are less likely to vote, it raises some probing questions about the representation of variously marginalised New Zealanders.

In 2014, just over 62 per cent of enrolled voters aged 18 to 29 voted. That means 219,032 young people didn't vote. Frankly, I can't blame them. I have to confess: in 2008, when I was first eligible to cast a ballot, I didn't either.

When I thought about politics at the ripe old age of 19, my mind conjured an image of a group of adults competing to see who could yell the loudest in the Beehive. They didn't seem to listen to each other, so why would they listen to me? I was on tour in Germany over the election period, but I barely shrugged when I realised I'd missed the opportunity.

What I didn't know then was that my voice was just as important as any other. My vote held the same weighting as that of Sir Colin Meads and Dame Malvina Major, for example. I had just as much right to have a say in the running of our country as any 40, 50, or 60-year-old.

Had I been encouraged to vote while I was at school, things might have been different. As it was, my civics education consisted of a social studies project on the 1999 election when I was Year 5, a trip to the Beehive when I was Year 7, and an overview of our constitutional monarchy when I was Year 9. I knew nothing about how our political system worked and very little about the parties themselves.

It seems ridiculous that we send school-leavers into the world without explicitly teaching them about their fundamental democratic right.

If we lowered the voting age to 16, we'd have the opportunity to engage young people in democracy through schools. Candidates would have a vested interest in connecting with young people who could learn about each party's policies, and develop informed opinions about their affiliations.

We could also address the issue of declining voter turnout across the whole population.

What better way to encourage young people to vote than to start the process while they're still at school, providing an access point for the electoral commission and the political sector as a whole to engage with them? And if you're doubtful that high school students would care enough to join in the conversation, try talking to a 16-year-old about the flag. You'll likely get an earful about how unfair it is that they're not allowed to vote. And rightly so.

Voting at 16 is hardly unprecedented. Austria, Brazil, and Scotland have already done it.

When our young people can drive, leave home, leave school, work fulltime, supervise children, apply for a gun licence, legally consent to sex, refuse medical treatment, get an adult passport, get a tattoo, and fly a plane solo at the age of 16, is it really reasonable or just that we don't allow them to vote?

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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