This debate has recently been taking place in Britain, and in fact Scotland has already made voting a right to be enjoyed from the age of 16 in elections to the Scottish parliament. Wales looks set to follow the example of the Scots, and there are calls for the main UK Westminster parliament to get with the program.
As is typically the case with public debates, the arguments for and against are rarely very good. In fact, they’re frustratingly poor. For instance, on the “anti” side we are told that voting should remain at 18 because 16 year olds lack the necessary life experience (whatever precisely that is). I’m not terribly sure that an 18 year old has vastly more “life experience” than a 16 year old. Moreover, my own 11 year old son has more experience (and educational achievement) than many of the people who are currently eligible to vote.
Not that the “pro” side has been doing much better. According to one popular argument, 16 year olds should be able to vote because they are affected by political decisions. In response I’ll simply trot out my 11 year old again: should he and his friends be entitled to vote because they too are affected by political decisions? And why then stop at 11 year olds? Or, again, apparently 16 year olds should get to vote because they can marry, pay taxes and even join the army! The vast majority of 16 year olds do none of these things, but even if they all did there’s no connection between being able to do these things and getting the right to vote. There are certain things 16 year olds are forbidden to do too. Moreover, perhaps this argument gives reasons for raising the age limit on these things rather than lowering the voting age.
To pop back over to the folks on the “anti” side we see claims that 16 year olds are not mature enough to hold such civic responsibility. The fact of the matter is that some are, and some aren’t – just like those who are 18 and older.
The problem isn’t really with the “pro” and “anti” sides. The problem is that we are using age as a criterion for voting rights, and no matter what age we choose there will be an element of arbitrariness to it. Why choose 16? Why not 17? or 18? or 19? or 20? or 21? There are people in all of those age groups who would be “good” voters and those who are ignorant, stupid, lazy, immature, and so on. Some 16 year olds contribute to society via taxation whilst many over 18 do not (and never have). Some 16 year olds are much smarter than many over 18, and yet some are mind-numbingly stupid. Some 16 year olds have the mental and emotional development of a pre-teen, whilst others have a wise head on young shoulders.
So, what are we to do? If we lower the voting age we’ll have lots of mature and intelligent contributors fully included in civic life, but enfranchise many others who are indeed immature, selfish, undeveloped, short-sighted, and stupid. We could rethink the right to vote entirely and base it on some ground other than age. Perhaps upon reaching some level of educational achievement we might be granted the right to vote. Alternatively, we might link voting rights to one’s contribution to society – in the form of taxation, or perhaps meaningful and sustained charitable work. Both suggestions have problems of their own – neither seems to utterly remove the element of arbitrariness that afflicts the age criterion – and I doubt either will win much support any time soon. I think, therefore, that we are stuck with the age criterion for the long haul. So, which age do we pick? Is there a less arbitrary one?
I would tentatively suggest that the voting age should stay at 18. There are many factors that go into making up a “good voter.” Ideally the person should contribute in some positive way to society. They should be of a certain level of education. They should be a responsible person, well aware of the importance of political life. They should have reached a certain level of emotional and psychological maturity. Now, no matter what age we pick we will inevitably exclude some who meet such criteria and include some who do not. The question is, can we draw a line somewhere that seems to produce the best overall balance. I think that line is 18. At 18 our main education is behind us, we have finished growing up, and are deemed to be responsible adults. From this point on we increasingly have a stake in politics – we get jobs, buy houses and cars, raise children. Of course this will exclude some excellently politically astute 16 and 17 year olds, but we are simply asking them to wait a year or two, and of course they are still free to be politically engaged in many other (often more effective) ways besides casting a ballot every few years. Voting rights will be bestowed upon the reaching of adulthood, just as certain other rights are.
I think 18 years perhaps gets the balance right, so unless there are overriding reasons for reducing the voting age to 16 – and I’ve seen little to suggest that there are – then leaving things as they are is perhaps the most prudent and least arbitrary course.
Stephen J. Graham