Legal Beagle by Graeme Edgeler


The climate strike and the voting age

Next Friday, students around New Zealand will be taking part in a climate strike, concerned about the international, and national, response to the threat of climate change.

That people are discussing their decision to wag school to take part pretty clearly validates the decision to bunk off school for the protest. The point of a protest is to get noticed. Sometimes, this is by being arrested. At particularly bad times in history, it's by risking your physical safety. And sometimes, it's by declaring you won't be going to school.

People telling them they should be at school are kind of missing the point. Of course they should be at school. They shouldn't have to give up school to get people to take their issues seriously, but they feel they have to, to make their voices heard. If it was on a weekend, it wouldn't be a strike. And it wouldn't be as newsworthy.

Part of the point of a protest or a strike is that you do not ask permission. You give up something of value (in this case, some education), or you risk something (perhaps a detention) because you think the trade is worth it. And if you get that detention, along with other like-minded individuals, it will probably be the best detention you ever had.

I do not know what policy changes they seek. Perhaps they will make clear some of their demands at the marches themselves. The youth climate movement is in its early stages, and will probably change as it grows. It's likely I'll disagree with some of their aims. That's kind of the point too. They want other people to think about things they currently aren't. Thing they say affect them and young people to a greater degree than they affect others.

A protest isn't about making people happy, it is about making people notice. And that's especially important when you do not have the means of making a difference that others have - like voting.

When the women-led Temperence Movement wanted to advance their cause in New Zealand, they also pushed for voting rights for women. They argued that women bore the consequences of alcohol to a greater extent than others, and wanted women to be able to make that point at the ballot box.

I'm kind of hoping there are a few participants at the climate strike who are students of that history.

Their long-term and medium term aims are matters for them, but, because it's what I do, I thought I'd draft a bill to give them an option, should some of them wish to take it up: the Electoral (Voting at 14) Amendment Bill. It does what it says on the tin, and would reduce the voting age in New Zealand to 14.

I've written about the voting age before, wondering why, given the levels of youth engagement in politics, there wasn't more of a push for reform - one obvious answer is that it's a problem that solves itself on the individual level, unlike other voting rights campaigns.

I think there are good arguments for the age being even lower (or even abolished) - Lucy Gray, the organiser of the climate strike in Christchurch, is 12 - but I'm a pragmatist, and so dramatic a change is unlikely to be achieved in a single step. And 14 seems a reasonable compromise. It also fits with some of the other legal ages we already have: 14 is when you stop being a child and become a young person; and 14 is the age of full criminal responsibility, when the law says you have sufficient cognitive abilities to bear criminal responsibility for your actions.

One of the common arguments against young people voting is that they might be more susceptible to undue pressure than other voters. This was an argument against giving women the vote, and it's one of the reasons we have the secret ballot. But to allay these concerns somewhat, the Electoral (Voting at 14) Amendment Bill increases the penalties for corrupt practices in the Electoral Act, which are presently low when compared to other offences.

Because of the way our electoral laws are written, the age would automatically apply to other elections, like local body elections, and to referendums. The simplest way to write the bill also means that it would also allow people to run for office at 14. I wasn't sure about that last bit (↑ pragmatist), but I decided if New Zealanders wanted to elect some amazing 15 year-old, I wasn't going to completely rule out allowing them at this early stage, but it wouldn't be too difficult to change if anyone wanting to advance it decided that was a step too far.

Reducing the voting age to 14 is not something I'm planning to campaing for, because, well, I think any campaign should be led by people who aren't as old as I am. But if young people, especially - but not necessarily - those taking part in the climate strike, see some benefit  opening up democracy to include more voices, and want to add this to their list of goals, I am happy to offer this bill and my support. Let me know if you want any changes, or any legal advice :-)

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