Should 16/17-year-olds be given the vote? No, quite simply. Why would we do that?
I’ve heard all manner of reasons over the years, told again these past few days and not one of them is new, nor are any of them made more convincing by their repetition.
It would boost turnout – so what? And would it? It doesn’t boost the adult turnout. It doesn’t guarantee a ‘better result’ or the edge to one party over another either and to seek that through this change would be appallingly cynical and undemocratic. All lowering the age would do is add to the numbers overall and probably make this demographic directly subject to the most abusive and nigh-on corrupting propaganda.
I know 16/17-year-olds who are more switched on than some adults – well, so what? Those adults were sixteen and seventeen once too. The fact that some teenagers are more savvy – which is actually a generalised and rather subjective reality to start with – is merely an observation about human nature and not a reason for adding to the numbers. It’s no secret or great mystery that some people are more engaged with their environment than others, or that some people ‘mature’ faster than others, or that some seem to never reach maturity, no matter how many years they have. By that measure we could introduce a competency test and make it mandatory to any age group. By that token we could withdraw the vote from stupid people – again subjective; again undemocratic – however tempting the notion is. I read an opinion yesterday which went my daughter is 16 and I’m sure she could be trusted to vote sensibly – Well, whoop di doo! I could have said the same of mine at that age! Actually I could have said that about one of my kids at the age of eight but I wouldn’t dream of legislating based on such a subjective bit of good fortune.
The problem is they’re not taught politics at school – Some people argue that the only barrier to lowering the voting age is the lack of political education in school. I never wanted my kids taught ‘politics’ per se – and most certainly not one restricted to current party assignations. The school curriculum regarding our civic rights and responsibilities and the complexity of our democratic processes is woefully inadequate, to be sure and this needs addressing but it does not follow that this is the only argument against lowering the voting age. Nor should the intent of such a syllabus be the politicisation of our young. Parents and the Media would seem to do quite enough of that. The intent should be that people leave school understanding the purpose of our system and the way it works and thereby being able to think for themselves, critically, based on the facts. Opinion is best formed when accompanied by facts. The political is personal and the personal is political – that is politicisation enough. The last thing our young need is to be herded by yet more doctrinal thinking, even by good intent.
The young can possess all the cognitive ability they like – that is not, in itself, a qualification to vote. Just because some kids can express a political view does not mean they should have the right to influence the choice of a government at the ballot box. By all means involve them – their interest and input is surely to be encouraged – but it is not necessary to give them the right of majority in order to do so. There are plenty of outlets for exploration and participation and no reason why that can’t be extended and made more accessible.
16-year-olds can have sex, join the army and get married; 17-year-olds can drive, yada yada – again, so what? These are discretionary levels of personal choice (two of which require parental permission, though not in Scotland, in the case of marriage) that affect only the lives of those engaged in the activity and are not necessarily beneficial or detrimental to Society or even the individual, particularly. Yes, friends and family may feel the effects of such choices but the whole country and her citizens do not automatically suffer directly from these individual and localised choices. And, if we do, perhaps we had no business lowering the age at which such choices can be made in the first place. If 16/17-year-olds were deemed to have reached an age of majority, they would be allowed to serve on the front lines of conflict. They are not. Why not? Not just because Society is uncomfortable with such a dramatic participatory level in our young but because the law has distinguished an age – 18 – to be the age at which, barring sufficiently severe mental incapacity, a person, mature or not, informed or not, is expected and allowed to be responsible for their own actions.
Whether or not we agree with the number, eighteen is currently the age of majority as set in Law. It is the age at which you become totally responsible for yourself as a member of your Society and citizen of your country. It is the age at which, not only can you vote, but, precisely because you are an adult and have the vote, you can also hold public office, enter Parliament as a representative of the electorate and serve on a jury as a representative of your adult peers. You could not give 16/17-year-olds these co-associated rights unless 16 or 17 were deemed in law to be the new age of majority. Does Society really want that? The fact that students are now to remain in education until the age of eighteen and are bound until their 17th year as a minimum is hardly an indication of renewed perceptions over maturity. Could Democracy really countenance giving this group the vote but not the right to stand as an MP? Before most of them have paid any tax? Before they can buy alcohol? Before they have even entered the world as legally autonomous beings?
16/17-year-olds will have the vote in the Scottish referendum – well yes, but this vote is of an entirely different nature and the very remit of the question arguably makes the exception more justifiable because the vote is on a single issue and the result potentially determines a permanent change. To me, that special circumstance makes it no more than a red herring with respect to the wider proposition.
If we are all living longer, what’s the rush? Why do we seem to be constantly trying to push our young into the murky adult world before they are ready – whether they think they are or not; before Society is ready..? There is an enormous democratic deficit in this country that lowering the voting age will not solve. There is a tragic lack in emotional intelligence out there at every age but lowering the point at which you can vote can’t solve that either. We are all let down by a common ignorance in our democratic processes, whatever our age. In this regard we, the citizens, all need educating because most of us are pretty ill-informed. We can rectify this, easily, at least in the education system – news media is more problematic – and we should address the same lack in our general, older population. But giving 16/17-year-olds the vote has no purpose I can see other than as some dubious reward for I know not what: a sudden quantifiable jump in their knowledge or emotional intelligence? Some evolutionary jump in maturity? To increase votes in favour of a particular party? I don’t see it. Giving 16/17-year-olds the vote is not the solution: it is simply adding to an already flawed system. Make them wait. It won’t hurt.