Well Alex, You Might Be Missing the Point!

Alex Kane is a well respected and thoughtful commentator.  I enjoy his articles, blogs and tweets (@alexkane221b).  However I was very disappointed by his recent Newsletter article on votes at 16.  He has challenged young people in our WIMPS (Where Is My Public Servant?) project to a debate on the issue, and personally – I can’t wait!

He bases much of his argument on his perception of his soon-to-be sixteen year old daughter Megan as being responsible enough to vote.  I wonder if he asked her opinion on this issue?  Interestingly when asked, young teenagers tend to be fairly evenly split on whether or not they think votes at 16 would be a good thing.  I suspect a century ago women were similarly divided on the issue.

Alex asserts that lowering the voting age would do little to affect the outcome of elections here.  He may be right – but that is not the issue.  It is either a good idea to give young people the vote at 16 years of age, or it is not.  His view is clearly that it is not a good idea.

Young people at the August 2013 WIMPS Media Camp
Young people at the August 2013 WIMPS Media Camp

He goes on to talk about the drop in voter turnout among the 25 – 55 year olds – and suggests that allowing 16 and 17 year olds to vote would do nothing to address this issue.  Again, he is probably right, but missing the point!

In his excellent report ‘Remixing Citizenship’  Professor Stephen Coleman – then Oxford Professor of Informatics suggested:

“It is not young people that are disconnected from formal politics, but political institutions that are disconnected from young people.”

I would put this slightly differently – it is not that young people have disengaged from politics – politics has disengaged from young people – indeed it is disengaging from many other people as well.  In Northern Ireland the general mistrust in politicians and politics is compounded by the stinking veneer of sectarianism that poisons so much political discourse.  You only have to look at how the middle-classes are disengaging (BT9 has the highest concentration of wealth and the lowest levels of voter registration in Northern Ireland) to see that much of what passes for politics in Northern Ireland is disengaging not just the young.

For me when we blame the electorate, we are missing the point.  The collapse in public trust is the real issue, and a growing perception that voting or other kinds of engagement (who else is fed up with what passes for ‘consultation’ these days?) with government are pointless.

I think allowing 16 and 17 year olds to vote is a good idea.  An important idea.  My experience of working with teenagers for decades is that when given serious responsibility, they behave responsibly.  If I had my way, the right would come with good political education programmes throughout school and in community settings to build the political awareness of children and young people, helping prepare them for the choices ahead.  All eyes will turn to Scotland this September as 16 and 17 year olds get the vote for the first time.  The Westminster Parliament and even the Northern Ireland Assembly have both taken indicative votes in favour of votes at 16 – and the next task is to push for legislation at UK level.

Last year I learned that in the USA youth turnout went up between the 2008 and 2012 elections.  I was blown away by this information.  The media had given the clear perception that young people were disillusioned with Obama following his impressive first election and were turning their backs on politics again.  This was not the case!  Campaigns such as the impressive ‘Rock the Vote’ (watch this space!) encouraged growth in turnout (albeit from a low base) in the elections – and Obama got elected by the generation Alex thinks has disengaged.  Obama (and a great social media campaign) reengaged them.

If we used capacity as the determining factor in elections in Northern Ireland – I am not sure many people of any age would be allowed to vote!  However, thanks to the Suffragettes voting is a fairly universal right (not getting into the prisoners voting issue here!).  The question is where to draw the line.  I was once told that Mandela had argued for 14 year olds getting the vote in the first democratic elections in South Africa – as so many young people were involved in the struggle against the Apartheid regime.

For me a key argument for reducing the voting age is to force political parties to consider young people and their rights in their development of policies and legislation, and to get them to talk with young people about their ideas (as we do at WIMPStv).  Our society knows all-too-well the costs of alienating and marginalising young people.  We continue to blame young people on problems such as sectarianism – as if they invented it!  There is a great opportunity here – in a new age of youth – to send a different message to our young people – we want you involved, and we need to hear your ideas.

Lastly – Alex – if you haven’t done so, you might want to watch or read the Hunger Games stories.  They have some fairly powerful political messages!

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