New Zealand lawmakers will take a vote on whether to lower the national voting age from 18 to 16, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Monday.
Her announcement came hours after the country’s Supreme Court ruled that not allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote amounted to age discrimination.
But while Ardern said she personally favours lowering the age, such a change would require a 75 per cent supermajority of lawmakers to agree. And even proponents acknowledge they don’t currently have the numbers.
A number of countries are debating whether to lower their voting age. Some that allow people to vote at 16 include Austria, Malta, Brazil, Cuba and Ecuador.
Sanat Singh, co-director of New Zealand’s Make It 16 campaign, said he was absolutely thrilled with the court’s decision.
“It’s a huge day,” he said. “This is historic not only for our campaign, but for the country.” Singh, 18, said existential issues like climate change — as well as issues like pandemic recovery and the state of democracy — will most affect young people.
“That’s why I think it’s really important to get all hands on deck to make sure we can have a stronger future,” he said.
Ardern, who leads the liberal Labour Party, said all lawmakers should have a say on the issue.
“I personally support a decrease in the voting age but it is not a matter simply for me or even the government,” Ardern said. “Any change in electoral law of this nature requires 75 per cent of parliamentarians’ support.” Ardern said the vote would likely take place within the coming months but any change would not take effect until after next year’s general election.
The liberal Green Party said it supported a change.
“Young people deserve to have a say in the decisions that affect them, both now and in the future,” said Golriz Ghahraman, the party’s electoral reform spokesperson.
But New Zealand’s two main conservative opposition parties said they oppose a change.
“It’s not something we support,” Opposition Leader Christopher Luxon told reporters. “Ultimately, you’ve got to draw the line somewhere, and we’re comfortable with the line being 18.” At the Supreme Court, four judges found in favour of the lobby group’s appeal with a fifth judge dissenting to some aspects of the decision.
In New Zealand, the protection against age discrimination begins at 16, and the judges ruled that the attorney-general had failed to show why 18 had been chosen as the age to vote rather than 16.
The nature of the court’s ruling compelled New Zealand lawmakers to at least debate the issue, but it didn’t compel them to take a vote or to make a change.
Singh said he’s hopeful that while his group may not yet have the 75 per cent support it needs in Parliament, it will get there within the next few years.
He said a possible first step would be to get the voting age lowered to 16 for local council elections, as that change requires only a regular majority of lawmakers.
New Zealand’s voting age was previously lowered from 21 to 20 in 1969, and then to 18 in 1974.