16 or 18 years: When are you old enough to vote?

How old is old enough to vote? It seems that the question will be debated by Parliament some time this year.

This responds to a declaration by the Supreme Court [the Court] in November 2022. The Court granted a declaration that the provisions of the Electoral Act 1993 and the Local Electoral Act 2001, both of which provide for a minimum voting age of 18 years, are inconsistent with the right set out in section 19 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 (BoRA) to be free from discrimination on the basis of age. It held that these inconsistencies had not been justified in terms of section 5 of BoRA. The action was taken through the courts by the Make It 16 group which has conducted a long campaign to lower the voting age. So, what does this mean and what happens next?

Only Parliament can change legislation, and in this case, it would require a 75 per cent majority for general election voting and a simple majority for local government. The Government must respond to the Declaration within six months, although it does not have to introduce a bill to lower the voting age or hold a referendum on it. Parliament has established a new process for considering declarations of inconsistency. This involves a select committee considering a declaration and reporting its findings to the House. The consideration of the Court’s Declaration of Inconsistency is the first time that this process has been followed.

The Government called for public submissions on the Declaration of Inconsistency Voting Age on 14 December 2022 with submissions due by the 15 March 2023 and a report on the 12 April 2023. A relatively brief timeframe at a difficult time of the year for consultation. We await publication of the report and its discussion by branches. Currently, NCWNZ has no policy on this issue. Policy on legal minimum age is limited to support for 18 years as the legal age for marriage (2014).

Parallel to potential changes above, there are two related reviews underway:

  • the Independent Electoral Review Panel which is considering a range of electoral changes; and,
  • the Future for Local Government Review which is also considering a raft of changes aimed at boosting participation in local government elections.

In the interim, we await the select committee’s report. However, current indications are that the voting age for general elections will not be lowered in the near future. Reaching the 75 per cent parliamentary majority needed is unlikely in the current Parliament. Both National and Act do not support lowering the voting age and the position of Te Pāti Māori | Māori Party is currently unclear. Importantly, contrary to earlier statements of support for change by the previous Prime Minister, the Government has recently announced that:

…. it will not be introducing legislation to lower the voting age to 16 for general elections. Instead, it will shift focus to lowering the age for voting in local body elections, which has stronger support in Parliament [13.3.23 Prime Minister Hipkins].

No decision has been made about whether there will be a party or a conscience vote. The situation for voting in local government elections is now a different matter given the Government’s statement above. It is less contentious than lowering the age for the general election vote and we may well see change there before too long.

We await developments on an important issue for our system of government.

Resources for further reading

Margaret Ledgerton, Parliamentary Watch Committee


To read more articles from The Circular (March-April 2023) issue 640, click on the tag below.
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