Legal experts say that while lowering the voting age at general elections might be politically challenging, New Zealand could see a differential voting system with 16-year-olds able to vote at local body level as a ”trial” first.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says she personally wants to see the voting age lowered for the first time in nearly 50 years and announced Parliament will debate the issue before the middle of next year.
It comes after on Monday the Supreme Court declared the current voting age of 18 was inconsistent with the Bill of Rights, namely the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of age, and that these inconsistencies have not been justified.
Amending the law for the general election requires the support of a referendum or super-majority of 75 per cent in Parliament, meaning with National and Act currently opposed change appears unlikely.
But changing the age for local elections only requires a simple 50 per cent majority, which legal experts say could be included in the same bill and with Government support could offer a “trial” run.
The Supreme Court ruling came after a case brought by the advocacy group Make It 16, which was set up in 2019 amid the school strikes for climate initially to find an avenue to give young people more of a say.
“This is history,” said co-director Caeden Tipler outside court after today’s decision.
Tipler said that they are confident the law will change.
“Although we’re celebrating we still have a lot of mahi to do.”
The ruling has triggered a process, set up under a new law passed in August, whereby the Government is required to respond to such Bill of Rights Act declarations and Parliament to debate them within six months.
The voting age for general elections is “entrenched” under the Electoral Act, meaning any change would need the support of 75 per cent of MPs or be endorsed in a national referendum.
Consequently, Ardern said as part of its response to the decision Cabinet had decided to draft a piece of legislation with a proposal to lower the age of voting to 16 for the whole of Parliament to consider. She anticipated it would be before the House before the middle of next year.
The super-majority rule only kicks in at the Committee of the whole House stage, after the second reading, meaning it would also go through select committee and public submissions.
Whatever the ultimate decision, it would not take effect before next year’s election, Ardern said.
“What I can say is that on this kind of matter, I think we should remove the politics, we should put it to Parliament, and we should let every MP have their say.”
Ardern said Labour had not decided as a caucus how it would vote but confirmed she supported lowering the voting age.
“For me, it is alignment around some of the responsibilities and rights that are reapportioned at these different ages.”
She said people were allowed to legally engage in activities across 16, 17 and 18.
“There isn’t one cut-off point that you can say in law New Zealand treated me as an adult, and that’s why I think it’s been the subject of much debate.”
National Party justice spokesman Paul Goldsmith, however, was unequivocal in his opposition to lowering the voting age.
“We don’t agree with the conclusion that the voting age which has been in place for half a century is suddenly unjustified,” he said.
Act Party leader David Seymour was also very quick to rule out supporting any change.
There would always need to be an age threshold to voting and to say not having it at 16 was inconsistent with the Bill of Rights was “illogical”, Seymour said.
Green Party electoral reform spokeswoman Golriz Ghahraman has long been an advocate of lowering the voting age and included it in her Strengthening Democracy Member’s Bill, which was voted down at first reading in September.
She said the court had found Parliament had “for decades been in breach of young people’s basic human rights”.
“Now is the time to do what’s right and strengthen our democracy to include the voices of 16 and 17-year-olds.”
Ghahraman said a change could occur immediately by picking up the parts of her members’ bill, including amending the entrenching provision, and it could be done in time for the 2023 election.
She said other democracies have either already extended voting rights to 16 and 17-year-olds or are currently changing their laws.
“Complying with the Supreme Court’s call would keep New Zealand’s democracy among the most modern and inclusive.
“Not only would this change create a more representative democracy, but it would also provide more opportunities to engage young people in politics while they’re at school.”
The voting age in New Zealand was lowered from 21 to 20 in 1969, and then to 18 in 1974. At each stage, it had the full support of Parliament and was in line with legislative changes across the globe.
Currently, only a small - but growing - group of countries allow voting under the age of 18, including Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Austria and Malta from 16 and older. In Scotland and Wales, 16-year-olds can vote in local but not the UK general elections.
An independent panel is currently reviewing the Electoral Act and issues such as the voter age, donations, 5 per cent party threshold and length of parliamentary terms. It is expected to issue recommendations in May and a final report by the end of next year
University of Otago law professor Andrew Geddis, who is one of the panellists, said today’s decision put the onus on Parliament to provide justifications for keeping the voting age at 18.
“But what the court also said was, we don’t discount that there could be good reasons for having it at 18, the Crown just hasn’t told us what they are.”
He said while voting at the national level required a 75 per cent super-majority, amending the Local Electoral Act didn’t.
This meant there could be a different voting age of 18 at national elections and something different for local elections, which some other countries have adopted.
“Then you could see what 16-year-olds or 17-year-olds do when they actually do get the vote in a way that’s perhaps less challenging.”
Ardern said given they’d only received the decision today having a separate age for local elections was “one of the issues that need to be worked through”.
Lawyer Graeme Edgeler, who worked on Make It 16′s case, said while it was a “good win” realistically passing a law to lower the voting age before next year’s general election would be too rushed, regardless of parliamentary support.
But a vote to reduce the voting age for local elections, perhaps as a trial first, is something that they could do, and something that the Government has already had advice on from the local government review.
“That might be something that they’re in a position to progress in time for the 2025 local elections.”
Lowering the voting age would also open up questions about other rights and responsibilities, including jury duty, which is based on the electoral roll.
Edgeler said the age for that could be lower, but the law could also be amended to keep it at 18.