Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Lowering the Voting Age?


There is some discussion in Britain of lowering the voting age to sixteen. Ostensibly, this will give "young people" rights which accord with their responsibilities, and may invigorate youth interest in the political process. The cynic in me believes that, rightly or wrongly, those who back the initiative expect the younger demographic to support them in future elections.

A British commentator, Zoe Williams aptly notes:
Voting is like sex, ultimately: some people are ready at 14, some really should wait till they're 21, some people will spend their whole lives unready, and just mess everything up for all of us whenever they go near it.

She then notes the condescending language used by a proponent of the initiative, Lord Falconer - "If we want to both engage young people and make them discharge their responsibilities, there's got to be a quid pro quo of letting them see more influence in the political process."
It would be an outrage to use this language about adults in a democratic state - that our votes were in some way a reward for the responsible discharge of our, erm, responsibilities. For a government that has placed such a premium on the nebulous concept of "citizenship" to misunderstand democracy so radically - to describe voting as a privilege they bestow upon us, rather than seeing their position as a privilege we bestow upon them - is beyond appalling. And if this is indeed a register in which it's acceptable to address 16-year-olds, then how can they conceivably be old enough to vote?

(She then notes that Lord Falconer is hardly alone in treating voters as if they are stupid.)

When I lived in Canada, although the city where I lived at the time wasn't exactly a hotbed of national political activity, I attended high school with the son of a prominent politician. (His father went on to be the Governor General). When he was fifteen or sixteen I asked him once what party he supported. His response was, "What do you think? You know who my dad is."

I hungered to vote when I was a teenager, and was very surprised when I finally received that right by how disinterested my peers were in voting. I do think that, in the U.S., allowing sixteen-year-old kids to vote would significantly increase the youth vote, but perhaps not in a positive manner. That is, I can see various ideological and religious groups lobbying and organizing their young members, attempting to indoctrinate them into voting in a particular way. As polling places are often in schools, I can see entire high school classes being marched down to the gymansium to cast their votes, regardless of their level of interest or knowledge.

If somebody is going to experiment with this, I'm perfectly fine with allowing our friends on the other side of the pond to go first. If in fact it is ultimately implemented and it works for Britain, we should consider following their lead.

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