Labor leader Bill Shorten announced he plans to reduce the voting age to 16 if elected. He offers three arguments for this.
One relates to consistency and fairness. If young people have the right and capacity to join the armed services, pay taxes or make their own choices about medical treatment, then why can’t they vote? His second argument is that the young are disengaged politically and from civic life generally. This seems to rely on the stereotype of narcissistic young people (the me generation) who are too self-absorbed to become responsible citizens. He also thinks lowering the voting age to 16 will help to “correct democracy’s participation problem”. Much of the criticism of this plan points to Shorten’s deficiencies. While Shorten is generally proving to be an ineffectual leader, his plan to lower the voting age to 16 should be supported. For a society to be considered democratic as many people as possible ought to be able to vote. There is an old ethical and democratic principle that says for any policy, law, or decision to be legitimate everyone affected by it ought to have a say about its adoption.
The voting age should be lowered because young people, as much as their elders, can make informed and good choices. No doubt there is a popular anxiety that young people are too easily influenced or too inexperienced. This is a paternalistic argument that presupposes there are credible criteria for determining when a person has the competence to make good choices. Recall that the same argument was used for a long time to deny women and Indigenous people voting rights.
Shorten, however, also needs to move past his reliance on tired age-based stereotypes that young people are disengaged. Contrary to his claims that today’s youth are politically disengaged he ought to acknowledge the many ways they are already politically engaged and meet them there – or at least halfway. Many young people are more politically engaged than many of their elders.