With the federal election fast approaching, the idea of lowering Australia’s voting age to 16 again rears its head. And everybody has an opinion on this debate.
Rightly too, as it’s an important debate to be had. It’s a question that could shift power dynamics within our democracy, it asks what qualities it takes to be a voter and what rights young people deserve.
In the interests of an informed citizenry (a.k.a. you!) we scoured the debate online and offline to present both sides of the discussion.
The case for lowering the voting age
1. Young people stand to be affected gravely by policies
An increased “youth voter” turnout would put youth issues into the political debate and increase their political representation. Youth Coalition of ACT argues that “young people aged 16-17 are unable to hold politicians and governments to account through electoral processes… Consequently, the challenges that young people experience frequently go unaddressed.”
Countries around the world have recognised this, and 16 year olds in Argentina, Cuba, Ecuador, Austria, Nicaragua and Brazil currently have voting rights.
2. Let’s be consistent, yeah?
The voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 in Australia in 1973. The argument for this was if 18 year olds are old enough to fight in war, they should be able to vote. The 2019 version of this is if 16 year olds pay tax, they should have a say in where that tax goes. And if 16 year olds work, they pay tax. Additionally, young people are affected daily by government regulation on education, healthcare, taxation—shouldn’t they be given a voice?
Another inconsistency is in relation to all the other responsibilities and privileges given to 16 year olds. The age of consent means they can become parents, they can work full-time, learn to drive, serve in the military and give consent to medical procedures, yet they’re considered too immature to know who represents their interests in government.
3. An ageing population skews power towards older generations
It’s no surprise older generations have priorities that differ from those of younger generations or the unborn. This is particularly problematic when young people are inheriting challenges not of their making, like climate change, rising inequality, challenges in putting a deposit down for a house, paying off larger HECS debts and government deficit. They should have a say on the future they are soon to inherit.
The case against lowering the voting age
1. Young people lack maturity to vote
At 16 and 17, young people lack the life-experience and are heavily influenced by adults like parents and teachers, therefore subject to coercion. Social scientists Tak Wing Chan and Matthew Clayton say that 16 and 17-year-olds wouldn’t be competent voters because “research in neuroscience suggests that the brain, specifically the prefrontal cortex, is still undergoing major reconstruction and development during the teenage years.” They add that the prefrontal cortex is what “enables us to weigh dilemmas, balance trade-offs and, in short, make reasonable decisions in politics.”
2. Schools are not adequately preparing young Australians to participate in democracy
Since 2004, the National Assessment Program on Civics and Citizens has measured student’s level of knowledge about the Australian Government, judiciary and democratic processes. The 2016 report showed a consistent decline in proficiency, and only 38% percent of Year 10 students achieved at or above the standard, a continuing trend from 2010. It stands to reason that informed and committed citizens will advance a robust democracy, but if the citizenry is ill-informed about democratic processes, why should they have a say on issues and policy that affect the whole nation?
3. Democracy rules, and bites
Australian National University political scientist Ian McAllister did some research on democracy. He writes, “if anything, Australian public opinion is more emphatically opposed to lowering the (voting) age. Over all, just 6% of the electorate favour change.”
But this report also says there is need for way more data. For many, there may not be enough research available to reach a consensus.
If you ask me, I think the voting age should be lowered to 16 but made compulsory at 18. This would encourage young people who are engaged to have representation and hold politicians accountable to issues affecting young people.
Then, to address the issue of an ageing population that skews political priorities in favour of older generations, perhaps there should be an age at which voting becomes voluntary? You know, let’s be consistent here.
Marta works as a creative producer at YLab, making all things media and youth engagement. She’s interested in democracy and the powers that shape our lives for good and for bad, and does her best to fight for the former and figure out the latter. She runs side project called Manorisms that’s creative space in Melbourne’s North.