Quick Hit: In Which I am Impressed

I’ve long thought that the voting age in Australia should be lowered to 16 — I’ve believed this since I was 16 years old myself and had to content myself with handing out how-to-vote cards, because I was unable to actually vote. Alfie McKenzie, however, a 14 year old, who managed to vote in the recent UK election is making me re-think things — why not make 14 the legal voting age?

McKenzie gives several reasons for his choice to vote Liberal Democrat on May 6th, this one among them:

…as a socialist democrat I thought that the Liberals’ views were the most democratic out of the three main parties. I sincerely hope Nick Clegg doesn’t compromise on proportional representation in his meetings with Dave.

I think it’s quite clear from this that he is as politically engaged and as thougtful as any adults who cast their votes last week. I must admit that the civil disobedience of the act makes me smile too — hooray for non-violent potlical statements.

(And yes, I do realise that, should 14-17 year olds have the vote, not all of them would vote for the candidates that I would prefer — but that is the nature of democracy.)

Good on you, Alfie McKenzie.



Categories: arts & entertainment, Culture, ethics & philosophy, Politics, social justice

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22 replies

  1. They weren’t the youngest to get a polling card, either.
    I think they should just abolish the voting age entirely. If you’re old enough to be able to mark a ballot paper in a way that’s recognisable by the counters as a vote, you’re old enough to have it count. If not, you’re still old enough to creatively scribble a spoilt ballot and maybe get more interested in the political process from a young age. Really, what’s the worst that can happen?

  2. This was one of the great stories of the UK election, which tells you how bad it was! (I’m still bitter about staying up until 4am to see a crap result when I could have just listened to the 10pm exit poll and got a good night’s sleep.)
    Your idea of lowering the age to 14 is interesting. I would love to see it coupled with a thorough and detailed component in education covering politics, democracy and political theory. If would be so much more engaging for a 14 year old to learn about politics, if they knew that they could go out and exercise their right to vote. Then maybe more of the adult population would be a. more inclined to vote and b. better educated about party politics.

  3. cim, on a strict reading of your comment you’re including voters who aren’t in fact old enough to scribble on anything.
    The usual objection made to children voting is that it’s essentially giving their parents a second vote. I don’t think this is a good objection to teenagers voting; it’s not as though there’s a developmental milestone at 18 that causes you to suddenly switch from complete dependence on your parents to form your political opinions to complete independence. But at the scribbling age I think the objection that parents might disenfranchise their children and unfairly advantage themselves by completing their ballot for them would be a genuine objection, as would be one about potential violation of the child’s secret ballot and freedom of choice. (For disabled adults to whom the local ballot process is inaccessible, this issue is regularly raised too.) It could probably be designed around.
    From my own memories of childhood, I wouldn’t have any objection to children voting from whenever they have some personal interest in elections, in my case that would have been from about age 10. I don’t know how to judge when this might be in what would be considered a fair way, cim is on to something there with eliminating age requirements entirely. In Australia, with compulsory voting, I’ve occasionally seen proposals that 18 should be age in which compulsory voting begins, with voluntary voting at a younger age.

  4. I wonder what eliminating the voting age would do to the birth rate? Would we see Family First voters suddenly expanding their families? Or any other political party for that matter.

  5. Lower the voting age by too much and all of a sudden you might expect political parties exploring the ‘Adequate icecream at frequent daily intervals’ policy option. Possibly a ‘Department of Chocolate and Fizzy Drinks’ may be created as well.

  6. @TimT I’m in my 20s, and I’d vote for that. And I’d love to see the bidding war between the parties. One party says “2000 more police”, the other counters with “and they’ll all be giving out free puppies”.
    Actually, I’d rather have that than the parties outbidding each other as to to who can be the nastiest to asylum seekers, or provide the most tax cuts.

  7. I would love to see it coupled with a thorough and detailed component in education covering politics, democracy and political theory. If would be so much more engaging for a 14 year old to learn about politics, if they knew that they could go out and exercise their right to vote. Then maybe more of the adult population would be a. more inclined to vote and b. better educated about party politics.
    Yes, Frank, I think this would be one of the biggest advantages of lowering the voting age. Every high school teacher I know reports that the kids they teach are very capable of nuanced political insights (from all sides of politics), when given the chance to be, and this gels with my own memories of high school, where I had political discussions in many of my classes that would rival any such discussion that I’ve had as an adult in terms of depth and insight. I think that teenagers in general are more than capable of voting in an informed way, if only given the chance.

  8. The arguments against allowing younger people to vote are to me, somewhat reminiscent of the arguments against giving women the vote.
    It will just be giving the husband (parents) two votes!
    They will vote for silly things for silly reasons!
    They don’t have the capacity to make sensible decisions about very serious matters!
    They probably don’t even want to, and all the sensible men (adults) have decided it’s not really in their interests anyway. They are fragile, fey things and don’t need the terrible responsibility of being enfranchised, and in any case –
    Their interests are already adequate represented by their oppressors!
    The suffragettes didn’t accept those reasons, perhaps children need to form a political movement to push for the vote?

  9. If they lower the voting age I would want them to tighten up the conditions under which people vote at polling stations – enclosed booths with only one person allowed in at a time with no opportunity for anyone else to see how they voted. Last state election I observed a man in the polling area telling his partner (presumably) how to vote and watching her mark the paper. Children at 16 are much more likely to be totally financially dependent on their parents and vulnerable to coercion than 18 year olds.

  10. Chris,
    I agree that there would need to be provisions in place to ensure that under-18 voters weren’t being forced to vote in a particular way by their parents, but at the same time, it’s important to remember that many people do require assistance with voting due to either disability or due to langauge barriers — and while, ideally, every polling station will have people present to provide such assistance, there are some individuals who might not find it possible to vote without the assistance of their regular carer, and certainly not every station is going to have someone fluent enough in every possible language that might be spoken in the electorate.
    I wonder if it would be possible to arrange for voting via schools for under 18s, so that students could have something like a postal vote, that is filled out before election day, in order to avoid children being disenfranchised by their parents.

  11. Lady Grey: “perhaps children need to form a political movement to push for the vote?”
    They have been, and are. An AYPAC-sponsored youth affairs conference in 1994 voted to pressure the government to lower the voting age to 16. The Young Democrats have also long held this policy, and it is official Greens policy (other Young Suchandsuch groups may be involved also, I don’t know).
    The peak body AYPAC was defunded by the Howard government (more in this 1998 Natasha Stott Despoja speech and this one and this Kate Lundy speech), but its successor AYAC is around and trying to do its bit. As noted above, children are a marginalised group who tend to be forced into financial dependence and low-wage pay, which does make independent political action more difficult. Just saying “Get together and lobby!” isn’t quite enough. Marginalised groups need support from some people in dominant groups to successfully advance an equality agenda.

  12. I’ve been attending elections and working out how I would vote since I was 7 or so. I’d love to see non-compulsory voting for the under-18s, but I strongly agree about the need to ensure their privacy. We haven’t even managed that for some voters with disabilities yet.

  13. I’m sceptical of lowering the age of majority where the franchise is concerned. What’s to be gained by it?
    The argument that the electorate would benefit from the informed votes of under-18s is also reminiscent of the old argument that women’s votes would produce a less sordid, more moral electorate. It hasn’t worked out that way. In the universal franchise we gained equality and justice, but there hasn’t been a corresponding increase in informed voting or in the public good.
    For perfectly good reasons we restrict arbitrarily the rights of those under certain ages. Young people can’t sign contracts under 18, they can’t borrow or lend money, gamble, drink, (these days) do military service, become a legal guardian for another person, or even legally watch some classifications of violent films. Age of marriage, age of consent, and child labour laws all restrict the human and civil rights of young people for their own good. It’s not that they’re a different class of people, it’s that they’re at a different stage of life: the state of youth if it’s anything at all is a state where one doesn’t know one’s best interest.
    To me the most compelling reason for the franchise to start at 18 is arbitrary and technical; it’s simply that at about that age that a young person has developed a documented identity as a citizen, with school certificates, a drivers’ licence, their own Medicare card or concession card, their own bank account for wages, and so on.

  14. What’s to be gained by it?
    I’d say it’s a pretty big gain for a group of citizens who are currently disenfranchised.
    The argument that the electorate would benefit from the informed votes of under-18s is also reminiscent of the old argument that women’s votes would produce a less sordid, more moral electorate.
    I don’t think anyone has been saying that, exactly. I think that most of us have been arguing that children, particularly teenagers, are just as capable of casting an informed vote as adults — this doesn’t necessarily mean that their concerns would be any more or less moral than adults, just that “but children/teens aren’t informed enough” is a spurious argument.
    I do, however, feel that more voters= more people informed about voting, and that if people began voting while at school, it would mean that more people are likely to learn about our electroal system and civil responsibility while at school. I’m also not sure you can say that women’s suffrage did not increase political awareness — what are you basing that assumption on?
    For perfectly good reasons we restrict arbitrarily the rights of those under certain ages. Young people can’t sign contracts under 18, they can’t borrow or lend money, gamble, drink, (these days) do military service, become a legal guardian for another person, or even legally watch some classifications of violent films. Age of marriage, age of consent, and child labour laws all restrict the human and civil rights of young people for their own good.
    I agree that there are some good reasons for some age-based restrictions, although I often think that these are too rigid. I also think that the most effective of these laws are those that put the onus on adults to protect the interest of under-age citizens — for instance, age of consent laws should not be about forbidding 15 year olds from having sex, they should be about forbidding adults from having sex with 15 year olds. Likewise, labour laws are about forbidding adult business owners from exploiting underage workers, rather than making it illegal for 13 year olds to actually seek work.
    Voting, I think, is in a different category — so long as proper privacy measures are in place (as they should be for all voters), there is no way that adults can exploit children by giving them the vote; it is in no way the same thing as an adult manipulating a child into performing sex acts or an adult making money by hiring underage workers. On the contrary, since children are subject to the laws and policies of our politicians, one could argue that they are less likely to be exploited if they are enfranchised.
    I will also point out that not all rights kick in at the age of 18. Teenagers can work at 14 and 9 months. I don’t know if things have changed, but when I was a teen, you could get your own medicare card at the age of 14 too. Most children have their own bank accounts, and I know that I was allowed to withdraw money from my own bank account at the age of 9 without a parents’ signature, and I had my own ATM card by 14 (I assume most kids would get them sooner these days).

  15. I’d say it’s a pretty big gain for a group of citizens who are currently disenfranchised

    Beppie, what I’m arguing is that very young people are simply not citizens in the same way adults are, having entirely different presumed legal responsibilities and rights. The law, in all of the examples we’ve been discussing, treats children differently to adults exactly because they do not share the same responsibility for their actions as adults do.

    “but children/teens aren’t informed enough” is a spurious argument

    We accept the argument when it comes to crime, why not when it comes to elections?
    Legal discrimination against youth isn’t just about protection from exploitation; their crimes are punished less harshly than those of adults, and rightly so. Their disenfranchisement is deliberate; and youth by its very nature is something one grows out of.
    Whether we draw the line at 16, 18, 12, or 35, we’re just arguing degrees. I happen to think that 18 is a sensible low boundary for the franchise, as it’s an age when most people in our society are expected to have made a transition into independent adulthood. I’m simply not convinced enough by the arguments: either that more voters will lead to better democratic outcomes (or better youth policy), or that the process of voting is an individually educative good.

  16. And I should also add that what Alfie McKenzie did—enrol to vote while he was not eligible to be on the roll—whether deliberate or accidental is electoral fraud, not a laudable non-violent political action.

    My crime only came out when I confided in one of my teachers. She didn’t see the funny side and told the deputy head. I don’t blame him for reporting it to the council, he was legally obliged at that point. But it was rather nerve-racking to think that I might be fast on the road to becoming a convict.

    Yes well ask any Queenslander about the Shepherdson Inquiry and they probably won’t see the funny side either.

  17. Liam, the Shepherson enquiry was about branch-stacking, not about disenfranchised citizens registering to vote. McKenzie’s act was most certainly both non-violent and political; whether or not it was laudable is more subjective. Personally, I applaud him, just as I would have applaud any woman who did the same thing before women were allowed to vote.
    Along the same lines, and regarding your earlier arguments:

    The law, in all of the examples we’ve been discussing, treats children differently to adults exactly because they do not share the same responsibility for their actions as adults do.

    In keeping with Lady Grey’s argument above, very similar arguments were used against women voting, at one point.

  18. In keeping with Lady Grey’s argument above, very similar arguments were used against women voting, at one point

    Indeed. And what I’m arguing is that in the case of children, unlike adult women, the arguments are valid.
    The suffragette’s argument that disenfranchisement infantilised all women was effective just because everyone can tell the difference between an adult woman and a child. The former is objectively capable of responsible political action, the latter is by definition not, in the same way they are not expected to live or work as adults.
    The arbitrary age of enfranchisement, though, that’s entirely subjective. I’ve stated my preference, and my reasons; that’s all we’re arguing about.

  19. Liam: Your reasons for preferring 18, however, included school graduation, a driver’s licence, and one’s own Medicare card, none of which happen at one’s 18th birthday. The right/responsibility to work and be taxed on wages would be just as logical a benchmark (and one with a long history), and that doesn’t happen at 18 either.
    Your military example is problematic in a more complicated way; recruits can join the ADF at age 17, albeit with parental permission, and may serve before they reach their 18th birthday (though the ADF says they “attempt” to keep them away from hostilities where feasible). Criminal responsibility is similarly messy; children are only considered completely free of criminal responsibility below the age of 10, with a further change at 14, and a further change at 17 or 18 depending on the State. Many other citizens may also be considered to have diminished responsibility at various times for various reasons, but they are not disenfranchised.
    Young people can open and operate a bank account from around the age of 12 with some banks, without necessarily having parental involvement. There’s an overview of some Australian bank policies for children here.

  20. I think non-compulsory voting at 16 is worth looking at, but I’m not sure I’d want it to be lowered to 14 for the reasons Liam points out. I’m generally unimpressed with arguments along the lines of ‘I know 14 years who are smarter than many adults’. Yes, but there are developmental imperatives that help decide the age at which we are allowed to do certain things.
    But people can, and many do work and pay taxes at 16 years. So the old cry of ‘no taxation without representation’ can be used here.

  21. So anyway, what kind of a 14 year old speaks like this?
    Still, I’ve enjoyed my Warholian 15 minutes. It’s been one heck of a ride, I can tell you.
    A media stunt, presumably cooked up between Alfie and the journalist who wrote/edited this article for him.

  22. Hadn’t considered it before. Definitely support 16. Would have to think further about whether lower or not.

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