The politics of lowering the voting age

Wednesday 4 September 2013

Arguments supporting a reduction in the voting age to enfranchise Australia’s 16 and 17-year-olds do not stack up, according to a new study by political scientist Professor Ian McAllister at The Australian National University.
Professor McAllister’s study, The Politics of Lowering the Voting Age in Australia: Evaluating the Evidence was compiled from data drawn from the Australian Election Study survey and analysed the main arguments supporting a drop in the voting age, primarily driven by youth organisations and the Australian Greens party.
“The main arguments focus on the need to bring voting into line with other government regulated activities and to reverse the decline in civic engagement. The third argument focuses on education and stresses the greater maturity of today’s 16 and 17 year olds, compared with those of twenty or thirty years ago,” Professor McAllister of the ANU Research School of Social Sciences said.
The study found that enfranchising Australia’s 500,000 16 to 17-year-olds would not significantly increase political participation or enhance fairness by bringing the voting age in line with other age-dependent government regulated activities.
“There are relatively few activities which have a minimum age of 16, with the exception of the age of consent and holding a firearms licence, so there is only partial evidence to support an argument about fairness,” Professor McAllister said.
“The argument that a lower voting age would enhance political participation also fails to stack up. Our analysis showed that intended voter turnout is lowest among the youngest age groups, 71 per cent among those aged 18 to 20, and 68 per cent among those aged 21 to 23, with turnout increasing significantly after that.”
ANU students Amy MacKinnon, 23, and Uma Patel, 24, staunch supporters of dropping the voting age, argued that, despite the findings, robust political dialogue does exists amongst young people in Australia and stronger public emphasis is needed on these conversations.
“Professor McAllister’s paper looks for an instant change in political participation as proof as the initiative’s merit – that’s not realistic. What needs to occur is a generational change and a cultural change in Australians attitudes to the political establishment and their influence over it,” Ms Mackinnon, a final year International Relations student, said.
The undergraduate students and Professor McAllister debated the findings of the study in a discussion filmed for the ANU YouTube channel.
The students argued there is no quick fix solution, but say changes in political attitudes should be the first step.
“I think there’s a widespread problem of political apathy within the Australian population, especially amongst young people. There is a very wide perception that one person’s vote doesn’t matter and that active participation by the individual in the wider policy debate is of little use,” Ms MacKinnon said.
“I don’t think we should underestimate the importance of having people’s democratic rights made accessible to them at a younger age. We shouldn’t dismiss the potential of the discussion and informal learning that takes place in Australia’s schools and amongst young people today to enhance their participation in the democratic process – both as young people and later in life”
“I think the intellectual development of young people is changing, and I think they are growing up at a much faster rate. Young people should be able to feel that they have a say in the future of our world,” Ms Patel added.
Professor McAllister said there was also no evidence that increasing education within the electorate is generating more politically mature younger voters, as measured by interest in politics and political knowledge.
“Political interest among young people remains at a low level despite increased interest in the electorate as a whole. In 1967, interest in politics between old and young people only varied by three percentage points, compared to a gap of 19 percentage points now,” he said.
“A second measure of political maturity is political knowledge and a substantial gap in knowledge remains between younger and older voters.”

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