How young is too young?

The time has come to review several features of New Zealand’s electoral system.

This includes the voting age, with pressure in recent years to add 16 and 17-year-olds to the electoral rolls.

As political academic and commentator Bryce Edwards has pointed out, the voting age is but one of several significant issues to be reviewed.

The Government last week announced the members of an "independent" panel to look at New Zealand’s electoral laws.

Justice Minister Kris Faafoi calls it a once-in-a-generation opportunity.

Under consideration are the likes of the voting age and overseas voting, the length of the parliamentary term, changes to the party vote threshold (5%), the one-seat electorate rule, the ratio of electorate seats to list seats and the overhang rule.

The funding of political parties, advertising on election day, public funding of broadcasting advertising, and the "risks of electoral manipulation and foreign interference" are other important topics being reviewed.

The Maori seats and MMP itself are excluded.

The group’s report is expected at the end of next year.

Separately, targeted changes before the next election are being proposed.

Most issues require vigorous debate in their own right. Most, voting age among them, are far from cut and dried.

Adding to the interest in the voting age is the disconnect between general opinion and "progressive" views.

Green Party justice spokeswoman Golriz Ghahraman last week said there had been enough reviews and previous recommendations should be enacted.

In 2020, lowering the age to 16 went to the High Court on an age discrimination claim.

A declaration of inconsistency with the Bill of Rights was sought. This failed, with the judge saying this was "an intensely and quintessentially political issue involving the democratic process itself and on which there are a range of reasonable views".

That year, a Curia poll showed 88% favoured keeping 18 as the voting age.

In 2020, too, 70% in a TVNZ Vote Compass poll supported the status quo. Just 20% backed lowering the age to 16.

It has been little wonder, therefore, that Labour has been cautious. Sending the matter off to a review panel has its advantages.

If one believes in "the wisdom of the crowd", the age should not change.

Overseas, a few jurisdictions have lowered the voting age, while the vast majority are at 18.

Twenty and even 25 are other thresholds.

Any age is, in part, arbitrary. If down to 16, why not lower? If maturity arguments are used for 18, why not higher?

At 16, young people can leave school, hold a driver’s licence, leave home permanently without permission, legally engage in sex, be charged with a criminal offence, work full-time and apply for a firearm licence.

But the adult court is from 18, as is legally buying alcohol or cigarettes or marrying without Family Court permission.

There is no clear dividing line between childhood and becoming an "adult".

In fact, last year the Government announced it was considering gradually raising the tobacco purchase age to 25 as it attempts to meet the Smokefree 2025 goal.

Young people and society also still celebrate the milestone of turning 21.

There are counterpoints made about engaging voters earlier, about the stake younger people have in their future — notably climate change — and the ignorance of voters of all ages.

On the other hand, there are questions raised about the degree of real-world experience and the influence of parents or teachers. Outside a small core of motivated teenagers, how many are ready and willing to consider politics?

The voting age was reduced from 21 to 20 in 1969 and to 18 in 1974.

Any further change would need 75% parliamentary support through the "entrenched" provisions of the Electoral Act or be endorsed in a national referendum.

Clearly, there is a long road before any change. But this important debate, like several others on New Zealand’s electoral rules, should take place.




No one can get a driver’s license unless they prove that they understand the Road Code, nor can a person get a place at university unless they meet entry requirements usually in the form of school exam certification. Rather than the right to vote being based on age, perhaps it should be based on competency? A few simple questions would show whether or not a person capable of making an informed choice. In this generation of fake news it would provide some protection of the majority from the political manipulation of the uninformed?