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Age of innocence or experience: extending the vote to teenagers

Some young people aren’t as disinterested in others in politics. Why is that? Flickr/Adam Scotti

History will be made when Scots vote in October 2014 on whether their country should take independence from the United Kingdom.

This has nothing to do with the outcome of the vote: the very fact that 16 and 17 year olds will be voting in such a referendum is a first in itself.

But what impact will these votes have on the future of the British state? Received wisdom has it that young people are more “progressive” and politically adventurous than older people.

But is this true? And more importantly, how would the extension of franchise to 16 and 17 year olds change the face of Australian politics?

Do young people who can vote already even do so?

There is much loose talk about young people’s supposed “apathy” or ignorance.

We know that the proportion of 18–25-year-olds enrolled to vote in Australia, after rising to 82 per cent in 2007-2008 has fallen to just above 77% in 2009-2010 and 2010-2011, compared with a 90 per cent or higher enrolment among the population generally.

Therefore, more one in five 18-25 year olds are not enrolled to vote, which amounts now to more than 400 000 missing young voices, right from the outset.

Further, the most recent publicly available statistics from the Australian Electoral Commission on age-disaggregated enrolment rates, from a parliamentary submission made earlier this year, show that low enrolment is most acute among 18 to 19 year olds, at only 53 per cent, while it rises to 82% among 20 to 24 year olds; although all citizens under the age of 40 in Australia have a lower rate of electoral enrolment than those who are aged over 40.

Australia’s system of compulsory voting since the 1920s has generally helped to protect some of the disadvantaged sections of our society from being marginalised in the political process, and protect them to some extent from having their needs ignored by politicians.

The inconsistency of democracy

In recent times there have been concerns that, despite compulsory voting, there has been a substantial and growing exclusion of young people.

Among the measures that could be considered is a further lowering of the voting age. Many politicians are less responsive to the problems of child poverty, youth homelessness and adolescent health concerns than they would be if the people most directly affected had a vote.

Children, as we are constantly being made aware, “are growing up so much faster nowadays”, with so many-life changing transitions and identity formations occurring and so many life prospects being determined by the time of their early teens.

People in advanced representative democracies can be held responsible for crimes from the age of 10, have been able to legally leave school and enter the paid workforce at age 15, can consent to have sex at 16, can learn to drive a car at 16, yet cannot vote until they reach the age of 18.

The young do vote differently

We know that those young people who do vote now tend to vote very differently than older people.

They give much greater priority to environmental issues, for instance. As many as one in five voters aged 18 to 25 supported the Greens at the 2010 national election compared with only one out of every 25 voters aged 65 or over.

It is fundamentally questionable whether policy decisions about combating climate change now can legitimately even be made when the very people who are alive now who are most likely to inherit an uninhabitable planet do not have a say in those decisions;

Yet at the same time older people, who may be more concerned about the short-term material enjoyment of the rest of their own lives, do have a say in those decisions.

Proposals to further lower the voting age deserve to be considered by governments as part of a broader program to enhance democracy and foster more active citizenship in Australia.

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