Events: Should the voting age be lowered to 16?

Currently, young New Zealanders at the age of 16, can, among other things:

  • Hold a learner driver licence.
  • Leave school.
  • Leave home permanently without permission.
  • Be paid at least the minimum wage.
  • Consent in writing to having their name changed.
  • Get a passport without parental consent.
  • Have consenting sex (heterosexual or gay).
  • Apply for a firearm licence.

But they cannot vote. Since 1974, the voting age in New Zealand has been set at 18. This is something Make it 16, a youth-led campaign, wants to change. In August 2020 it took a case to the High Court seeking what is called a Declaration of Inconsistency. Such a declaration is a way for the Court to communicate to Parliament that legislation has infringed the rights set out in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act. Make it 16 lawyer, Jason McHerron, acknowledged that the current voting age of 18 was legally valid, but argued that 16- and 17-year-olds were ‘competent and mature enough to vote’. Austin Powell, representing the Crown, accepted that ‘one will find both precocious children and incompetent adults, [but] you still have to put the line somewhere.’

Justice Jan-Marie Doogue issued a decision from the High Court in Wellington on 7 October stating that ‘restricting voting to people aged 18 was a justified limit on the right not to be subject to age discrimination.’ She pointed out that ‘other New Zealand laws put the line between adults and children at 18 years, it was within the range of reasonable alternatives, and the vast majority of countries had a voting age of 18.’ Justice Doogue offered some encouraging words for the disappointed Make it 16 campaigners when she stated that she ‘believed the debate about the voting age should be encouraged and had increased in recent years.’ Make it Sixteen are undeterred believing this discussion’ needs to be had in Parliament’ as well as with the public. Spokesperson Ella Flavell told RNZ’s Morning Report that ‘a lot of policy work needs to be done around lowering the voting age’ and that her group needs to focus on convincing MPs of their cause.

The voting age has rarely been discussed in Parliament since 1974. Andrew Geddis, a University of Otago Law Professor, felt that the Make It 16 court case was an opportunity to ‘lay bare the shoddy basis for restricting individual rights’ and in so doing shame MPs ‘into doing something to fix the problem.’ Whether or not 18 was a somewhat arbitrary line, Geddis suggested ‘it is no more arbitrary than 16 would be.’ The current age was ‘chosen by parliament because by that age each person is deemed sufficiently mature to understand the gravity of voting.’ If successful, any changes would have to go through a lengthy parliamentary process. The voting age is ‘entrenched’ under the Electoral Act. Any change would need to be supported by 75% of MPs or endorsed in a national referendum, presumably by voters aged 18 and over.

Based on some polling, there appears to be little appetite for change. Watch this space.

A brief look at the voting age in New Zealand

When voting first commenced here following the passage of the 1852 Constitution Act, only males over the age of 21 who owned, leased or rented property of a certain value could vote. This qualification effectively excluded almost all Māori, who owned land communally. The Maori Representation Act 1867 established four Māori seats in the House of Representatives and in so doing extended the franchise to all Māori males aged 21 and over. Universal suffrage for all males aged over 21 followed in 1879 before the landmark legislation of 1893 which extended universal suffrage for women aged over 21.

New Zealand has, over time, prided itself on supporting a range of social and political issues that are highlighted as reflecting progressive or enlightened values and practices. We were the first self-governing country in the world in which women had the right to vote in parliamentary elections. This became a central part of our image as a trail-blazing ‘social laboratory’, especially as women in countries like Britain and the United States could not vote until after the First World War. But when it comes to the voting age, New Zealand hasn’t stood out from the pack, generally being in line with many other western democracies that are typically used as a point of comparison.

There was finally some movement on the voting age, albeit minimal, in 1969 when it was reduced to 20. After taking more than a century to get to 20 the next change came quickly when the current age of 18 was introduced in 1974. This was a period of great demographic change resulting from the post -war ‘baby boom.’ The enormous expansion of secondary and university education to cater for the growing number of young New Zealanders focused attention on the political and legal rights of the 18–20-year-old age group. The Vietnam War also proved to be a catalyst for change. The increasing and highly visible anti-Vietnam War protests on university campuses here and around the world led some to question why if someone was old enough to fight for their country, they were not old enough to vote? While some opposed enfranchising student protestors, others wondered if this would be a good way to channel youthful political passions. Accordingly, most western democracies lowered the voting age to 18 during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The first election in which 18-year-old New Zealanders could vote was the November 1974 by-election for the Sydenham seat prompted by the death of prime minister Norman Kirk, who had supported lowering the voting age while leader of the Opposition in the 1960s.

Young MPs?

There doesn’t seem to have been much discussion in this debate as to whether 16- and 17-year olds should be able to stand for Parliament as well as vote. This was the case following women’s suffrage, when despite being able to vote in 1893 women could not stand for election until 1919. Elizabeth McCombs was the first woman elected to the New Zealand Parliament, in 1933.

In November 2019, the National Party selected seventeen-year-old William Wood as its candidate for the Palmerston North electorate at the 2020 election. At the time of his selection he was ineligible to vote, although he would turn 18 before the election. Wood’s youth did raise some eyebrows. Given National’s views on the voting age, some found it interesting that they were willing to select such a young candidate, especially as he defeated several other older people for the nomination, including a sitting list MP. Wood declare that ‘no age group, no matter how old you are, has a monopoly on good ideas…. what I want to see in Parliament, is a diverse range of thinking.’

Today permanent residents can vote, but only New Zealand citizens can stand for election.

‘When is someone old enough to vote?’ Arguments for and against lowering our voting age

Bronwyn Wood, Senior Lecturer in the School of Education at Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington, asked what’s the worst that could happen if we lowered the voting age? ‘A groundswell of politically interested young people can’t be too threatening – or can it?’ Manawatū based journalist Alister Browne echoed these sentiments when acknowledging that ‘our youth are politically minded enough to vote’ asked ‘what are we scared of?’

Wood found that in broad terms the arguments for and against lowering the voting age could be summarised as follows.

Those opposed to giving 16-year-olds the vote believe that:

  1. Young people are not informed enough, too immature and lack enough life experience to vote.
  2. Young people are heavily influenced by adults such as teachers and parents (and therefore subject to coercion).
  3. The ability to vote doesn’t match other responsibilities young people hold (as they are still largely dependent economically on adults).

Those in favour of giving 16-year-olds the vote believe that:

  1. Young people deserve the right to vote as decisions about the future have greater implications for them than for older people.
  2. Voting young will enhance the habit of participation.
  3. Young people are already paying taxes and should have a say on where their money goes.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 21 affirms that ‘everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.’ On the eve of the Make it 16 court case, activist Ella Flavell told RNZ’s Morning Report that the question of lowering the voting age to 16 raised an important principle. ‘We believe that this can bring change to New Zealand so that we can have a much more representative democracy and a stronger democracy.’ At issue here is exactly who the ‘everyone’ is as referred to in the Declaration, and at what age does society deem someone old enough to be entrusted with the right to vote?

The 21st birthday was for a long time regarded as a ‘coming of age’. Under law a person did not became legally independent of all parental control until they turned 21. This was changed to 20 via the 1970 Age of Majority Act. Despite this, the 21st birthday is still seen by many as an accepted threshold of adulthood.

In February 2018, the Children's Commissioner, Judge Andrew Becroft, called for a ‘genuine discussion’ on changing the voting age when he appeared in front of Parliament’s Social Services Select Committee. He believed 16- and 17-year olds were ‘up for the responsibility’. At Make it 16’s campaign launch in 2019, Becroft reiterated his belief that ‘children and young people have the right to have their voices heard and taken into account.’ Furthermore, he argued, lowering the age would ‘enhance turnout, ingrain the habit of voting and uphold young people's rights.’

The National Party’s spokesperson on youth affairs, Nicola Willis, disagreed, maintaining that 18 was the ‘widely accepted’ age of adulthood. In her view, ‘voting is a wonderful responsibility and it's a rite of passage, but I think we've got it about right having it at 18.’ Willis expressed concern that 16-year-olds would be ‘potentially vulnerable to parental coercion.’

Back in 2007, Green Party MP Sue Bradford had announced her intention to introduce a members’ bill that would reduce the voting age to 16 and make civics education part of the compulsory curriculum in schools. When the opportunity arose however, Bradford abandoned the idea, citing ‘adverse public reaction’. In 2020, another Green MP, Golriz Ghahraman, expressed her support for a lower voting age by proposing a member’s bill on electoral reform. This was not selected from the ballot before Parliament dissolved.

The Christchurch City Council threw its support behind the campaign to reduce the voting age to 16 in a submission to the government's justice select committee inquiry into low voter turnout at the 2019 local body elections. Low voter turnout for such elections has been a concern for a number of years. Turnout of eligible voters in the 2013 and 2016 local authority elections averaged 47%, and the 2019 figure was just 42%, with 41% in Christchurch. The council believed that lowering the age would both increase the number of young people voting and start the voting habit at a younger age.

Responses to this submission in local media suggested that there was little support for it. One Stuff poll indicated 79% of respondents wanted things left as they were. Online comments were also largely dismissive, with one stating that ‘getting young people interested in politics is very important. But, giving them the power of the vote is different: that needs to be earned after they've been interested for a while. For example, they need to acquire the ability to see both sides of issues and not just their own preferred side: that takes maturity, not just information.’ In my observations of political commentary on social media and the comments section of many online media sources, I have seen many instances of people, presumably old enough to vote, being unable to see both sides of an issue. There have been few calls to disenfranchise such voters. Just what is it that ‘needs to be earned’ by young people? What is it that a young person automatically earns by turning 18?

Other polls during 2020 suggested that the mood of the nation was against any change to the voting age. An overwhelming majority – 88% – of those who responded to a poll by Curia (the company that provides internal polling for the National Party) in August 2020 believed that 18 was the correct age. Only 8% favoured lowering it to 16, while 4% were undecided. A TVNZ Vote Compass poll taken in September 2020 saw 70% of respondents state they were happy to leave the voting age at 18. Only 20% favoured lowering the age to 16. Breaking the figures down, 84% of those who indicated they were most likely to vote for National or ACT opposed any change, but a majority of Labour voters (58%) were also against lowering the voting age. Although the Green Party has been the only political party to raise the matter in Parliament in recent times, even its supporters  were divided, with 47% opposing any change and 42% supporting the idea.

A conservative commentator, Liam Hehir, believes that much of the recent support for lowering the voting age has been generated by the media, which he argues is badly out of step with society. A ‘disconnected political media’, he argues, ‘is not good for democracy.’ Hehir points to similar polling in the USA, Australia and the UK, which all show little support for lowering the voting age. Such consistency, Hehir contends, highlights ‘the yawning gulf between the often-radicalised cohort of politically active progressives and the more circumspect views of the population at large.’

What is largely ignored in the polling is who is being asked for their opinion on this matter. The already enfranchised are being asked about how they feel about sharing that right with others. It would have been interesting if polls were run in the early 1890s to ask men how they felt about extending the franchise to women. What might happen if only 16- and 17-year olds were asked the question?

Lowering the voting age and the case for more civics education

Any discussion about lowering the voting age is almost always accompanied by a call to teach more civics in school. When the topic was briefly mentioned in the first of the televised leaders’ debates in the build-up to the 2020 general election, National Party leader Judith Collins ruled out any change under a National-led government. Labour leader Jacinda Ardern was a little more equivocal, stating she ‘wouldn't rule it out in the future but let's get civics right first, let's support our young people to learn about politics’.

Ardern’s response disappointed Make it 16 campaign co-directors Gina Dao-McLay and Dan Harward Jones. They believed a perceived lack of civics education was once again being used as an excuse for not lowering the age. Dao-McLay stated Make it 16’s ‘absolute’ support for civics education in New Zealand schools, but pointed out that successive governments had failed to introduce this. It seemed ‘ironic that politicians are now using this as an excuse.’ Harward Jones pointed out that ‘there is currently no minimum level of education required for someone over the age of 18 before they are given their ballot.’

Is the ‘more civics in schools’ qualification an avoidance tactic, as suggested by Make it 16 and others? Is it a way of allaying the concerns of those who think 16- and 17-year olds lack maturity and knowledge, or is there a genuine need for more civics in schools as a precursor to any reform of the voting age? Fitness to fully participate in our democracy is not something that can necessarily be determined by passing a test comparable to that for a driver’s licence. If it was, there would surely be many disqualified voters over the age of 18. If the feeling is that more civics education is needed, we can assume previous generations also lacked such education. Yet they are deemed qualified to vote by virtue of having reached the magical age of 18.

Bronwyn Wood, who has spent many years exploring the nature and place of civics education here and overseas, believes the notion that we need more civics education in our schools is underpinned by three assumptions: that there is indeed a ‘civic deficit’ in youth today that needs fixing; that young people need more civic knowledge; and that students currently receive no civics education in New Zealand schools.

In response, Wood stresses that young New Zealanders were ranked among the highest of 38 countries in community volunteering, cultural group participation and collecting money for a cause, according to one ICCS international study. Wood points out that there are other ways of measuring  civic engagement. The actions taken in recent years by youth-led organisations such as Strike 4 Climate, as well as Make it 16, highlight not only a keen interest in the issues of the day on the part of young New Zealanders, but a desire to actively engage and take action. In these examples such activism may be seen as a stronger level of participation in our democracy than merely casting a vote.

In The Good Citizen: How a Younger Generation Is Reshaping American Politics, Russell J. Dalton argues that ‘contrary to conventional wisdom, younger generations are more politically engaged, more politically tolerant, and more supportive of social justice … creating new norms of citizenship that are leading to a renaissance of democratic participation.’ Research discussed later in this piece also highlights how many young Austrians have turned to non-electoral forms of participation in order to influence political outcomes.

Wood concluded that if we are serious about creating active citizens, our young people need experience ‘of real decision-making on issues that matter to students.’ Longitudinal research shows that the ‘only type of citizenship education that has a long-term impact on political participation is when students gain active experience in working on civic and political issues – and particularly on issues that matter to them.’

The issue of climate change and the ability to influence political decision-making has been key in many younger people agitating for a lower voting age here and around the world. Climate change has seen the youth of Aotearoa New Zealand in their tens of thousands actively engage in politics. A common cry during Strike 4 Climate rallies, ‘Whose future? Our future!’, highlights an awareness of the impact of political action, or inaction, on their lives. Renee Wells reminds us that ‘young people are engaging in politics on their phones every day’ and no longer have to base their political opinions on how their parents vote. The youth of today have all the resources required to form their own opinions, so why should they not be allowed to have their say in the future of their country?

Youth journalist and activist Azaria Howell argued that, contrary to popular opinion, lots of young people care deeply about politics and are desperate to have their voices heard. ‘Right now the disheartening fact is that the youth voice is often ignored, all because we aren’t allowed to vote.’ A lower voting age, she argued, is the key to making our ‘participatory democracy genuinely participatory.’ Howell highlighted how after the introduction of women’s suffrage in this country, voter turnout shot up, among both genders and all 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.’

A key argument put forward in favour of lowering the voting age is that the younger someone engages with the electoral process, the greater the chance they will become lifelong voters. Research shows that voting is habitual. Just as a person who votes in the first election they are eligible for is likely to continue voting consistently, someone who doesn’t may take many years to pick up the habit.

Jan Eichhorn, Lecturer in Social Policy at the University of Edinburgh, stressed that it was time to look beyond anecdotes when considering lowering the voting age. His study of the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, for which the voting age was reduced to 16, threw some interesting light on the debate. Roughly 75% of 16- and 17-year-olds voted in the Scottish referendum. Support for this reduction of the voting age sat at roughly a third before people actually experienced young people taking part in the voting process. Support has now nearly doubled, with roughly 60% of the Scottish population agreeing with a reduced voting age. Eichhorn concluded that there was a need to engage with evidence obtained when younger people were actually allowed to vote, rather than making assumptions about their behaviour by observing older peers.

Back in New Zealand, Bronwyn Wood contends that the greatest drop in political engagement, such as voting and joining political parties, has been in the 25–29-year group, along with enrolment declines among 30–34-year-olds; ‘the problem is not uniquely related to youth.’ The numbers from the 2017 New Zealand general election support this conclusion, with 18–34-year olds having the lowest figures for voter turnout – between 67 and 70% – of all registered voters, compared to 80% of registered voters overall.

This thinking was also explored using survey data from Austria, where 16 year olds can vote in nationwide elections. While turnout among this group was relatively low, there was no evidence that this was driven by a lack of ability or motivation to participate. It was more the case that young Austrians had turned to non-electoral forms of participation in order to influence political outcomes. A more problematic group was those aged between 18 and 24. When the voting age was lowered to 16, three-quarters of 16- and 17-year olds voted, compared with only a little more than half of 18–24-year-olds. Similarly low voter turnout can be found among Americans aged 18 to 24.

The Austrian research concluded that lowering the voting age did not appear to have a negative impact on the quality of democratic decisions, and that the ‘potential positive consequences of this reform merit particular consideration.’ Furthermore, it was argued that those opposed to lowering the voting age to 16 needed to ‘look again at the arguments they use, and that there are important reasons to consider the potential positive impact of such a reform more closely’, a point made by Jan Eichhorn in considering the Scottish example. He believed it was a mistake to ‘extrapolate from the behaviour of those between 18 and 24 how 16- and 17-year-olds would behave, as their situation is rather different.’

The research in Austria and Scotland would suggest that in order to properly appraise earlier enfranchisement, we need to engage with evidence generated when younger people are actually allowed to vote, rather than making assumptions about their behaviour after observing older peers.

Finally, the response to the COVID-19 global health emergency in 2020 has injected an interesting new perspective into the voting-age debate. The economic and social impacts of COVID-19 have disrupted nearly all aspects of life for all groups in society, but as highlighted by one OECD report , vulnerable youth face considerable risks in the fields of education, employment, mental health and disposable income. In New Zealand tens of billions of dollars have been borrowed to mitigate these impacts. Those opposed to the level of borrowing to grapple with the fallout from COVID-19 have asked how this debt will be repaid, and by whom. There has been considerable talk from some sectors about burdening the youth of today with debt for years to come. In one pre-election debate, ACT candidate Brooke van Velden called the government’s economic response to COVID-19 ‘fiscal child abuse’, receiving a sharp rebuke from the Green Party's Chloe Swarbrick. Based on current economic forecasts, the 16- and 17-year-olds of 2020 might well ask why they don’t have a say in electing those who will be responsible for governing during this time of crisis – seeing as they will be paying for it for years to come.

Steve Watters, Senior Historian-Educator, 2020

How to cite this page

'Should the voting age be lowered to 16?', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/classroom/contexts-activities/events-should-voting-age-be-lowered-to-16, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 14-Oct-2020

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