DID THE INDEPENDENT ELECTORAL LAW REVIEW PANEL pause to wonder why New Zealand citizens become eligible to vote at 18? It’s a long and convoluted story, very little of which has much to do with cool, calm, considered cogitation. Like most of our constitutional milestones, the age of enfranchisement is the product of superstition, tradition, and political agitation. Rationality has only ever played a bit-part in this drama.
Let’s begin at the beginning with the concept of “coming of age”. For many centuries, this was something men did at the age of 21. Why 21? Because it is 3 x7 – both of which are charmed numbers. Don’t laugh, for most of human history numbers have mattered – a lot.
Among the medieval aristocracy, the journey towards “manhood” was divided into three stages. For a male child’s first 7 years, his life was centred on hearth and home. Upon turning 7, however, the custom was to have the little boy taken into the household of another aristocrat, where his education would begin in earnest. At the age of 14, the boy’s education would turn towards the arts of war and government, a process which often involved him becoming the esquire to a knight. At 21, these boys would finally enter “man’s estate” with all the privileges and responsibilities that entailed. The tradition of holding 21st birthday parties is traceable to this superstitious aristocratic arithmetic.
None of which applied if you were born a serf – a status that mandated very hard work, for very little reward, from a very early age, for the lords whose sons were learning how to become “gentlemen”. Since it was these same lords and gentlemen who wrote the laws of the land, however, 21 became the age at which full adult male status was bestowed.
It was a very different story for girls – isn’t it always? In law they were the property of, first, their fathers, and then, their husbands. For centuries the age at which a girl could be treated as a woman was 12. It was only in the Nineteenth Century that the Age of Consent was raised from 12 to 16 – a reform which was bitterly resisted by an disconcertingly large number of members of the British House of Lords, who seemed to regard it as an unconscionable curtailment of their pleasures.
Although in egalitarian New Zealand the voting age has been the same for men and women since 1893, the same could not be said of Great Britain. The initial enfranchisement of British women in 1918, saw their voting age set at 30. Full equality was not achieved until 1930.
What was it, then, that caused the voting age to be lowered from 21 – the generally accepted age at which people became fully-fledged adult citizens – to 20, and then, in reasonably short order to 18? The answer is to be found in the great “Youth Revolt” of the 1960s and 70s.
The huge “Baby Boom” generation, raised in the most economically and socially propitious circumstances in human history, demanded to know (at least in the USA) why it was considered appropriate to draft 18, 19 and 20-year-old males to fight and die in the jungles of Vietnam, but not to give them a say in electing the politicians who were sending them there.
It was a question their grandfathers and fathers had never thought to ask when their government send them off to World Wars One and Two. Young men had always been the first to follow their country’s flag. Too young to legally buy a beer, or vote, but old enough to kill and be killed.
Well, not any more.
The parties of the Left, seeing a huge pool of what all the pollsters were telling them were “their” voters, hastened to enfranchise these devotees of Peace, Love and Rock-n-Roll. Fifty years later, both here in New Zealand and around the world, history would appear to be repeating itself. Substitute Climate Change for Vietnam and the political dynamics are surprisingly similar.
Where the Greens are rushing-in, Labour will, sooner rather than later, cease to fear to tread – especially now that the Independent Electoral Review Panel has given lowering the voting age to 16 the thumbs-up.
There is, however, a world of difference between giving teenagers the vote, and persuading them to use it.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 9 June 2023.