One of my favourite episodes of the West Wing is the sixth season episode “A Good Day”. There are four somewhat interweaving plots, and all are good. The episode is best known for the legislative manoeuvre of a bunch of congressmen pretending they weren’t going to be able to vote (a scheme copied a few years later by the Conservatives in Britain to defeat a hate speech law); and the plot involving the possible invasion of Canada is hilarious, but I think my favourite thread is the White House visit of the Future Leaders for Democracy, a youth lobby group pushing for a constitutional amendment prohibiting age discrimination in voting rights.
I was reminded of this episode after reading this week’s Sunday Star Times’ debate between Jacinda Ardern and David Seymour, on whether 16 and 17 years-olds should have been permitted to vote in the flag referendum.
This isn’t a new idea, especially when it comes to votes with longer than usual effect. The voting age in the United Kingdom is 18, but the Scottish Parliament allowed 16 and 17 year-olds to vote in the recent Scottish Independence Referendum, with people arguing, well, they’ll be the ones to live with the consequences.
Now, I kind of disagree with both Ardern and Seymour.
Don’t get me wrong - I’m sold on extending voting rights. Like the precocious kids on The West Wing, I’d probably just abolish the voting age completely, although I recognise that won’t happen any time soon. But any law that will move it in that direction will have my support.
There have been suggestions in the past. Green MP Sue Bradford once announced a bill around civics and the voting age, and others have said it would be a good idea at times.
Now, I wouldn’t link it to increased civics education – voting is either a right or it isn’t. And civics education is either a good idea, or it isn’t. And plenty of adults cast votes for reasons we might think are self-serving, or even stupid.
The debate has come a couple of times over the last few years, but one thing has always been missing: kids. The only people I have ever seen argue for the voting age to be lowered are people over the age of 18.
Kids are involved in politics in all sorts of ways. They sign up to Greenpeace, they join political parties (you get voting right in the Labour Party at 15, and there appears to be no minimum age in the Green Party at all). A nine-year-old petitioned Parliament for the testing of people driving on foreign drivers licences in New Zealand, after his father was killed when a foreign student drove on the wrong side of the road.
New Zealand women weren’t among the first to be given the right to vote, they were among the first to insist on the right to vote. There were protests. And letters to the editor. Groups were formed. And campaign committees. There were several almighty petitions. Some men were involved, but women ran the thing. For years. It took far too long, but when women in New Zealand got the vote, it was because women in New Zealand wanted the vote and set about getting it. It was the same in the UK and the United States. I imagine it was the same in other countries whose women’s suffrage movements I know less about.
But where are 16 and 17 year-olds on the voting age? Because I haven’t seen any. Where are New Zealand’s Future Leaders For Democracy? Where are the petitions, the letters to the editor, or the stories in local newspapers about the questions kids ask the Prime Minister when he visits a school? Where are the YouTube videos, the memes, the whatever-kids-do-these-days I know nothing about? Where even is the page you can like on Facebook? Because here’s one that hasn’t posted since 2012, with 47 likes.
And most of all, where are the kids who want to vote? I’m all for lowering the voting age, but I’ve seen little indication that it’s something all that many of them want. But if they want to fight for it, I’m happy to help, and they shouldn’t have to wait until the next special occasion. If 16 year-olds or 15 years-olds want to vote, we should be acting on it now, not as some last minute addition to a referendum on a flag, or a republic.