Vote Early – should 16 year olds be able to vote?

There is a report in The Guardian that Gordon Brown, the British Prime Minister in waiting, has backed the idea of reducing the voting age to 16. Many members of the Australian Democrats have advocated a move along these lines in the past, although usually with a caveat like it should only be voluntary, or perhaps only for local government elections.

It’s an idea I’m attracted to for Australia, although I don’t know whether it translates as well to a country like the UK where voting is voluntary for everyone. Gordon Brown’s other suggestions, such as looking at reform for their electoral system and a reduction in power for the executive, sound even better to me.

The Isle of Man has already decided to lower the voting age to 16, so it may soon give some idea of how well this idea works in practice.

Many contrasts are made between Peter Costello in Australia and Gordon Brown in the UK. Both are immensely frustrated Prime Ministers in waiting and both are trying to carve out a more distinct image of themselves while not overtly opposing what the incumbent PM is doing. At least Gordon Brown has the certainty that Tony Blair is stepping down before the next election, although it seems the precise date is still unknown to him or anyone else.

Being in this situation can lead to the risk of over-reaching in an effort to show their own unique and valuable set of ideas. Whilst I don’t agree with many of the views Gordon Brown is saying lately, he does at least appear to have a reasonable intellectual grasp of the issues he is talking about. I couldn’t say the same about Peter Costello sadly. My impression is that the more he opens his mouth in an attempt to showcase his own opinions and views, the more he shows how shallow, inconsistent and poorly thought through most of his views are.

However, maybe he’s just had a bad run lately, or maybe I’m just jaundiced or in a bad mood while I’m writing this. Either way, my view is certainly not going to make much difference about whether he gets to be PM or how people perceive he is performing.

For people interested in what the situation is globally, this page details what countries have a voting age below 18, and what other places have been considering the issue.

Iran has a voting age of 15 (not that I’m sure that Iran is a good advertisement for democarcy in general). Brazil and Nicaragua have a voting age of 16, as do Germany and Austria for local elections. Our neighbours in East Timor and Indonesia have a voting age of 17.

My view is that there are valid arguments for and against, but I think it would be worth trialling voting for 16 or 17 year olds for local government elections. I tend to think making it voluntary would be better too.

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  1. michail,
    i find you intreaging a person of (18)? is so educated in polotics. i would have thought to have such a grasp of issues like you it would take many a long year at uni to study.
    so tell everyone why did you want to vote at 14 thats extrordinary. what exactly would you change if you had the power?.

  2. “In a democract society the idea is that every person capable of having a say who will be affected by legislative decisions should be given the opportunity to have that say.”

    Our society is right to discern that children are not capable of a full range of mature decisions and nor should they be forced to. Heaven helps us we have already suffered enough thanks to parents who think that you can negotiate with a two year old about want they want for breakfast and then wonder why their kids are uncontrollable at four, playing truant at fourteen and unable to hold a job for more than six months at twenty four – if they haven’t managed to ignore any good parental advice and ended up in Kerokaboan Jail at 20 first..

    In any case, our society has rightly determined that the primary responsibility for children is borne by their parents. Parents vote just as much with their children and their children’s future in mind as they do for themselves (or aren’t you a parent to understand that). If you are under 18 and don’t like your government talk to your parents. If you are under 18 and can’t trust your parents to make a right choice on your behalf as much as theirs then you need to learn a bit of respect for the very people who have raised you and sacrificed for you. And also learn a bit of patience which after all is a sign of maturity. At most you might miss what – one state and one federal election even if that and it’s not as if we live in a country where your one precious vote one way or another is going to send us hurtling into some abyss from which we can never recover. Any 12 year olds out there clamouring to vote ought to grow up and get over themselves.

    To argue that adult women and Aboriginals fall into the same category as children is ridiculous. And yes sixteen year olds are children. Seventeen year olds too. They may be smart, intelligent, energetic, passionate, even parents at that age, but they are still children – not least because we live in such an easy country in easy times that doesn’t demand much of them. And some don’t even outgrow childhood at 18. But if we can send them to war at that age then we can give them the vote.

    If you are a resident over 18 and want to vote, then become citizen. If you can’t handle all the other other rights and responsibilities that come with citizenship like jury duty and defending Australia if called for, then don’t become a citizen. Tough.

    You might consider yourself progressive or inclusive but any society that keeps trying to eliminate boundaries for no bloody good reason except self-stimulation or some blind ideological ground only ends up in chaos. It’s called history.

  3. I think that the ‘issue’ of making 16 year olds vote is something of a strawman.

    However, it might also be an effort by the minor/irrelevant political players to obtain some traction. To be blunt, the uni students these days are vastly more conservative in outlook than when I was first at uni in the 70s. I now have 2 sons at uni, and the number of VSU-day parties being planned is astonishing. They hugely resent having to pay $240 (ANU according to No.2 son) for nothing they use, when they had to work in low-skill retail jobs to earn the money.

    There is a real division at ANU between the bulk of students and those they term “the smelly hippies” (“Greens, Socialist Alliance, Spartacists and all those soap-allergic idiots, Dad” according to No.2 son). Basically, the present government is very popular in this age group because they want jobs when they leave Uni, and need jobs (any jobs) while at uni. They value their degrees and work amazingly hard at them. Both my sons cruised in high school. The change once they hit uni was astonishing, as they have to pay for a chunk of their uni education.

    So with the uni student sufficiently attuned to the realities of the world to simply laugh at the sheer silliness of much of the left’s ‘worldview’, where are they going to get votes,a nd all those lovely perks of office?

    How about from even more callow kids, who will pretty much believe anything?

    OH, a point about voting. VOTING IS NOT COMPULSORY IN AUSTRALIA. Attendance at a polling place on polling day IS compulsory. You do not have to vote, you can deface the form, stick it in the ballot box, and that is that.

    I spend a lot of time explaining this to Americans, who are usually fascinated by our system.


  4. “… and it’s not as if we live in a country where your one precious vote one way or another is going to send us hurtling into some abyss from which we can never recover.”

    I’m 18, but you know, that’s a brilliant political philosophy. I might leave it a couple more years to mature and learn to think rationally, because I was under the impression — and you’ll think this is silly — that voting was important in a democracy. Absurd.

    As for this issue not being on the public radar: it depends who you talk to. Something not being the highest priority in everybody’s mind is no reason to abandon consideration of it. And there are a great many people, “child” and adult, for whom this is a very important issue.

    Anti-youth suffrage arguments tend to run along the lines of “youth people aren’t mature – look at delinquincy, look at marketing – they have no idea about politics”. And I really think that Michael’s repeated point, that the detractors seem loathe to actually address, that the same arguments can be made about any minority and, in the case of “no idea about politics”, the majority, is completely valid.

    And the typical answer to that is either some kind of “proof by absurdity”, saying that by that argument two-year olds should be able to vote. In effect, that that makes the age of majority an arbitrary thing.

    And there’s the key. It’s already arbitrary. This was probably the only thing that Andrew’s posting on the various ages of majority in different countries showed: there’s no obvious key age. What Michael is saying is that when you have evidence that people are capable of making an informed decision – and such evidence clearly exists for 16 year olds – then it’s the responsibility of a democracy to err on the side of inclusion.

    And I tend to agree.

  5. Now we have Pat – who of course is old enough to vote.

    I’m 18, but you know, that’s a brilliant political philosophy. I might leave it a couple more years to mature and learn to think rationally, because I was under the impression — and you’ll think this is silly — that voting was important in a democracy. Absurd.

    As for this issue not being on the public radar: it depends who you talk to. Something not being the highest priority in everybody’s mind is no reason to abandon consideration of it. And there are a great many people, “child” and adult, for whom this is a very important issue.

    Where are they? Why is that whenever people – including long time observers of Australian ‘democracy’ at work – talk of weaknesses or friction points in our democracy, the voting age is not one of them? Heck some think voting is so important they talk of making it optional, but like MarkL I too think those arguments are more for political gain

    It was not me who suggested lowering the voting age. In fact I don’t even favour making it optional. My first question to those who think it so important Pat is why? What’s wrong with the present voting age that is so unbearable that it should change? Apart from “it’s all about me” or because “I want to vote.” Because you see, you don’t live in some ethereal world called “democracy” where you and your rights and your wants are the centre of the world – you are a person who lives in a society characterized by a complex web of relationships. So go ahead, those who want to lower the voting age. Convince the rest of us.

    And there’s the key. It’s already arbitrary. This was probably the only thing that Andrew’s posting on the various ages of majority in different countries showed: there’s no obvious key age. What Michael is saying is that when you have evidence that people are capable of making an informed decision – and such evidence clearly exists for 16 year olds – then it’s the responsibility of a democracy to err on the side of inclusion.

    And I tend to agree.

    Oh and like lemmings we go off and do what, start a bidding war? Haha, our voting age is lower than yours? Look over there, it’s 16! Quick let’s change ours. We are not Tonga or Iran. Nevertheless if you also cared to look at how these “arbitrary ages” as you call them were set and changed over the course of time em, you may notice *gasp* one common factor running through all of them, which has something to do with the basic building block and decision -making body of any society, democracy or not: families, households.

    In fact , if I could be bothered, I could probably make a case for increasing the voting age. But as I said, I’m not the one advocating for change. So Pat, convince me.

    (oh and technically MarkL, I believe you are required to register to vote, and once registered you must rock up to get your name crossed off and lodge a ballot paper. The AEC also has a policy of not finding you for not registering or registering late)

  6. lets pose a question . if i was the govt of the day and wanted to pass legislation that is not wanted .or strips away your rights .would i not start a debate like this that will never draw attention away from the real issue.
    i was in qld in the peterson era this is typical.
    now thats the difference between michael and me.
    being older and wiser mabe not as well educated .
    i will ask what is the govt up to and look close at whats realy gowing on.before i jump up on a soap box and try to claim i have rights.our leader that 99 % of voters did not vote for is in india selling uraniun that has not bean debated about yet so mutch for democrasy. so what dose a 16 year old say about that?

  7. Let’s face it most kids 16 and under are clueless about politics. There may be the odd one or two in every hundred or so that have an interest in it or in economics or the environment etc, etc, etc…. but you don’t change the voting system just of .000?% of the public.
    It’s bad enough we let some adults vote.

  8. But don’t just take my word for it….

    “So would lowering the voting age be a step in the right direction?

    “It would probably increase the number of kids that are interested in politics,” asserted Zeebah. “But I also think that there are many kids at my age who wouldn’t be able to make the most educated decisions because I don’t think they have experienced enough in life… Once you go to college you see more than in high school.”

    Having taught kids and coached kids… and having been a kid, I think I have a fair idea about why or why not kids should get to vote.

    For most of their lives children attend school. This is a “cloistered” environment.
    In the vast majority of cases their lives do not involve adult pursuits, pressures or responsibilities.

    From the UK…

    Mostly the arguments for allowing people to vote at 16 are both muddled and incoherent.

    On behalf of the majority of the population who say that they think the idea of giving thevote to 16-year olds is a silly one (a reputable survey found that almost 80 per cent ofthe electorate is opposed to the idea), here are six arguments against:

    Let’s start with the Electoral Commission’s stated reason for raising the issue in the first place: turnout. Their interest in the voting age, so they claim, ‘stems principally from our concern about declining participation rates in UK elections, especiallyamong young people’. Yet it is difficult to understand the logic that leads from worries about turnout to lowering the voting age. All agree that turnout among electors aged 18-24 is significantly worse than among older people; the solution proposed is to include in the electorate a group whose turnout is likely to be even lower. By any standard this is bizarre reasoning. If anything is certain about what will happen to turnout if the voting age is lowered it is that in the next election turnout would be lower than it would otherwise have been. Even ‘Votes At 16’ accept that.

    Advocates of a lower voting age also place great emphasis on the fact that children(in England, at any rate) now receive formal education in citizenship. The argument appears to be that there is an anomalous gap between finishing compulsory education in citizenship and having the right to embark upon a career as citizen by voting. Yet the teaching of citizenship has barely started – the statutory obligation wasnot implemented until September 2002 – and all the available evidence is that it is being taught badly. Anyway, ‘civics’ has been compulsory in US schools for generations and there is no evidence that it increases political literacy or turnout – just as compulsory religious education in the UK has done nothing to stem the decline in church attendanceand compulsory PE has been accompanied by soaring levels of obesity.

    Next we come to sex. Because people can engage in sexual activity and marry at16 they should also, therefore, be able to vote. In fact, young people under 18 require parental consent to be married in England and Wales and very few do so.According to the 2001 census, just 0.26% of males aged 16-17 in England were married and just 0.49% of females. People of this age may, then, have a restricted right to marry but (perhaps thankfully) very few exercise it.This sort of argument is an example a more general belief that lowering the voting age should be seen as part of a move towards more consistency in the age of majority. The‘Votes At 16’ website is full of such examples: I can drive a car but not vote; I can join the forces but not vote; I can get married but not vote (with the last accompanied by a picture of a depressed looking bride, whose wedding day has somehow been ruined by the lack of the franchise).In passing, it’s worth noting some of the obvious discrepancies in these examples: youcan drive from 17, not 16, and whilst you can join the forces from 16, frontline service is meant to be avoided until 18, precisely because society does not see 16-17 year olds as full adults. But even so, ‘tidying up’ in this way does have superficial attractiveness. Yet it assumes that there is a single age at which people should become entitled to take up various rights and duties – criminal responsibility, driving, purchasing alcohol and tobacco, jury service and so on. But perhaps different ages should apply to different spheres of activity given that there is no logical connection between them? There is nothing inherently illogical in setting different qualifying ages for different things and just because some rights are acquired at 16 (like the right to have consensual sex) this does not necessarily imply that an unrelated right (like that to vote) should also be granted at the same age. Rather than ask ourselves at what age people should acquire a packageof rights and responsibilities we should ask what would be the appropriate age for the activity concerned. In that case, it is perfectly understandable that different ages would apply in different areas.

    Like all of the chattering classes, the Electoral Commission have got themselves into a terrible tizzy about the turnout of young people in elections. The Commission fails to appreciate that abstention among the young is like a belief in Father Christmas: it’s something that they grow out of. Instead, they believe that the alienation of young people from existing political structures is partly explained by their belief that politicians fail ‘to listen to and act upon young people’s concerns’. And so if the voting age were lowered politicians would have to take young people more seriously and act on their views. The sensible response to this argument is simple: how naïve can people be? Anyone could list a whole series of groups who would make the same complaint – the white working class, ethnic minorities, the poor, disabled people, small-business owners, pensioners, people who live outside London and university teachers, to name a few – and all of these have the vote.

    Then there’s the ‘moral argument’. The ‘Votes at 16’ campaign claim that it ismorally right to extend the vote to 16 and 17-year olds, suggesting that the arguments used against it are the same as those that were used to deny the vote to women and the working class and that such arguments ‘are as wrong now as they were then’.There are at least two sleights of hand involved in this assertion. The first concerns the claim to moral righteousness. Determining a cut-off age for anything is an arbitrary decision rather than a moral question. How, for example, could there be a moral case for votes at 16 but not at 15 or 14? And secondly, it is deeply disingenuous (if not downright offensive) to equate children and previously excluded groups in this way. The difference is that children grow up! A 16-year old will in due course be allowed to vote,which was not the case with women before 1918 or working-class men in the 19thcentury. Denying the vote to 16-year olds is not, therefore, inconsistent or discriminatory since they are simply not in a comparable position to the other groups.

    And lastly, there’s the rallying cry ‘No taxation without representation’. How can people who pay income tax be denied the right to vote? Yet this argument founders on the high percentage of children who already pay VAT (are those who spend their pocket money on sweets or CDs to be granted the vote because they are taxed?)and on the low percentage of 16 year-olds who pay tax. Just 5% of 16-year olds and17% of 17-year olds are full-time employees, according to the 2001 census. By contrast, 89% and 68% respectively were classified as ‘students’, few of whom will be paying income tax. The great bulk of 16 and 17-year olds therefore are financially dependent upon their parents and guardians. More generally, this is typical of the arguments used by those who argue for lowering the age of electoral majority. They take small groups of the population thought to be unfairly treated at present – such as those in the armed forces, those in employment,those who marry aged 16 or 17 – and then extrapolate to the wider population of 16-17year olds. This latter group is extremely unlikely to be married, are unlikely to pay income tax, and have about as much chance as dying for their country as they have ofwalking on the moon.If people really believe that it is unfair not to give the vote to soldiers or those in full-time employment under the age of 18, then one solution would be to grant it to them –but deny it to the others. This would stop groups like ‘Votes At 16’ trying to piggyback an extension of the rights of the majority of 16 and 17 year olds onto a few more deserving cases

    I guess the next question will be what other age restrictions we remove. Age of consent? Drinking? Smoking? Gambling? The list goes on….

  9. re 59
    well done geof
    i dont think there are many 16/17 year olds that were given the right to vote and treated as an adult.actualy take responsibility for there actions and be willing to be treated as an adult.{cant have one without the other}

  10. I do not think the voting age should be lowered to 16 based on the sole fact that most 16 year olds do not have the knowledge and know how of the government system. I personally have a 16 year old son and i know that he, or any of his freinds care at all about who is president as long as they have their dirtbikes and girls.

  11. Hi Everybody, I’m a first time user long time reader and i have an opinion, For straters I’m doing an assignment for aust studies and i needed to find some info on 16 and 17 year olds having the right to vote. After several hours of typing my name into Wikipedia i decided to do my assignment, so after a while i got some ideas of being able to vote, I’m 17 years 8 months 19 days ande 12 hours old myself and i love politics, seriously, i like cold nights curled up infront of the fire watching debates that have no meaning, it’s one of my faviourt past times. Anyway back to the subject. I would love to vote and i know all of my two friends would love to vote aswell so i think that voting should be not compusary but 17 years 8 months 19 days 12 hours 15 minute year olds shouold be able to vote if they want to. Thank you and goodnight. Kane Hall

  12. ummm ok why the hell would you want to do such a stupid thing like that. teenagers arent emotionaly stable and even mature enough to vote dont be gay!!!
    so i say

  13. There should be a referendum on this issue. Surely the government can rake up a few other issues to vote on at the same time, to make it financially worthwhile.

    If the adult voters decide that 16-year-olds can have the vote, they can take on ALL of the other adult rights and responsibilities at the same age – driving, going to jail, going to war, drinking, smoking, being self-supporting, age of consent. This would keep it simple.

    They can’t have all of the rights without all of the responsibilities.

    I am totally against it.

    High school teachers will have to put up with even more smart alecs mouthing off and interrupting their classes. Then our kids will learn next to nothing. Things are bad enough as it is.

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