In late January, the British Labour Party announced that lowering the voting age to 16 would be one of the first acts of a new Labour government. According to Labour’s shadow justice secretary Sadiq Kahn, lowering the voting age is a crucial way of tackling “the public’s malaise towards all things political.”
He argues that getting the public into the habit of voting is key to raising the numbers of British subjects who participate in elections. He claims that people who vote when they first become eligible are more likely to keep on voting.
There’s a growing European movement – led primarily by youth demonstration councils and parliaments – to lower the voting age to 16. At present young people vote at 16 in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Jersey, Guernsey, the Isle of Mann and Slovenia (if in full time employment). In the UK a bill to reduce the voting age to 16 received its second reading in Parliament just before the 2010 elections. There is also an initiative in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe to lower the voting age to 16 in all EU countries.
In other parts of the world, young people vote at 17 in Sudan, Israel (in municipal elections), North Korea, East Timor, and the Seychelles. They vote at 16 in Brazil and Nicaragua, and there is a bill bending in the Taiwan legislature to lower the voting age to 17.
Taxation Without Representation
There are obvious civil rights issues in denying 16 and 17 year olds the right to vote. Especially as many are in full time employment and pay taxes. Although there is no constitutional guarantee against taxation without representation, there is a strong tradition in common law that people who pay taxes should have some say in how their tax money is spent. As I recall, it was a common rallying cry leading up to the American Revolution.
There is a certain illogic in allowing teenagers to work (and pay taxes), drive, have sex and be tried as adults – and at the same time claiming they are too “immature” to vote. Let’s get serious here. Which is more dangerous – driving or voting? It’s really scary to think that in fourteen states, teenagers are competent to receive the penalty at 16. In five states they can be executed at 17. Yet they aren’t competent to vote aren’t until their 18th birthday.
Current Teenagers are the Most Politically Aware Ever
The most compelling argument in countries that have lowered the voting age is that our current crop of teenagers is the most politically savvy ever, thanks to the Internet.
Another really persuasive argument relates to a demographic crisis facing all industrialized countries. In all of them, a large cohort of baby boomers will spend approximately 20 years “in retirement,” with a relatively small pool of working adults paying for their social security benefits, health care and nursing homes. The issue has already reared its ugly head with controversial proposals to force members of generation X and Y to work till age 70 before they can retire.
As the Danish representative who introduced the Vote at 16 initiative to the European Parliament points out, denying 16 and 17 year olds input into this major policy shift is a clear invitation to civil unrest.
The most common counter argument to reducing the voting age is that 16 and 17 olds are too immature to make logical choices and exercise good political judgement. If we followed this thinking to its logical conclusion, the US would have to increase the voting age to 65.
For more information on the UK movement see http://www.votesat16.org.uk/