Voting age should be lowered to 16 - Supreme Court

By Will Trafford

A new ruling from the Supreme Court says the voting age of 18 breaches the human rights of those aged 16 and 17 years old. Photo / Mark Mitchell / NZME

The highest court in Aotearoa has decided that the current voting age of 18 is unfair and violates the human rights of young people.

The "Make It 16" lobby fought for two years through the courts to lower the voting age to 16, arguing young people should have a voice on issues like climate change, which they argue will affect them disproportionately. 

The right to vote will not be extended to 16-year-olds automatically but it does mean the court has found Parliament is acting in breach of the rights of young people.

"Such a clear legal and moral message can't be ignored by the government and parliament. We must be able to vote." Make It 16 campaign’s co-director, Caeden Tipler said on the steps of the court.

“This is history.”

The 'Make it 16' campaign started after tens of thousands of teenagers across the motu started school strikes for the climate three years ago.

'I was not able to have a say'

The campaign expanded to a number of social and equity issues.

“I was 16 in 2020, which was probably one of the most consequential elections in our lifetime,” Make it 16’s co-founder Sanat Singh said.

“Issues that mattered to me about mental health, climate change and the state of our democracy were things I was not able to have a say in.”

New Zealand's Human Rights Act says actions can be discriminatory, starting at age 16. The court pointed out Monday's decision would only apply to people 16 and older; it could not be taken to mean that people of all ages, even babies, should be able to vote.

Green Party MPs most likely to benefit from a lowering of the voting age have come out with vocal support, with MP Golriz Gharaman congratulating the "incredible movement".

No from National

National’s justice spokesperson Paul Goldsmith says his party does not support any lowering of the voting age.

“Decisions about the voting age, like other electoral laws, are decisions for a democratically accountable Parliament to make,” Goldsmith said.

“National’s priorities in justice are reducing violent, youth and gang crime, as well as clearing court backlogs.”

“Many other countries have a voting age of 18, and National has seen no compelling case to lower the age,” Goldsmith said.

A recent law change by Parliament, however, means if a court says something is inconsistent with supreme laws such as constitutional documents, the law will go before parliament for special debate.

A larger review into the electoral system is also already underway in light of historically low voter turnout, particularly in October’s local elections.

Tipler says Make it 16 is "optimistic" and had "belief in our politicians" to remove what she called "unjustified age discrimination and a human rights violation".

"At 16, you can work part-time ... in jobs that you're paying tax on. You can consent, you can learn to drive - all these things means at 16 it makes sense as the voting age rather than 18."

Only Brazil, Cuba, Austria, and Malta have voting ages of 16 and up, while in Scotland 16-year-olds can vote in Scottish parliamentary elections though not in UK general elections.

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