Lowering voting age to 16: A potential boost for minorities in NZ?

NZ Supreme Court's ruling that declared the voting age of 18 as discriminatory marked a major win for the Make It 16 campaign. Local leaders weigh in on the potential impact on ethnic communities.
On Nov. 21, the New Zealand Supreme Court ruled that the current voting age of 18 years breaches the Bill of Rights, compelling the parliament to discuss the issue.
On Nov. 21, the New Zealand Supreme Court ruled that the current voting age of 18 years breaches the Bill of Rights, compelling the parliament to discuss the issue. Koon Chakhatrakan/Unsplash

In New Zealand, despite the harsh economic climate last fiscal year, nearly 95,000 teenagers aged between 16 to 17 contributed a staggering $81 million in taxes.  As early as 16, they can drive, own a gun and hold full-time jobs.  They can independently decide their education plans, where they live, and their medical treatments. But, they remain deprived of one fundamental right — the right to vote. 

Last November, this discrepancy was addressed when the New Zealand Supreme Court ruled that the voting age of 18 is discriminatory and against the country's Bill of Rights, which gives people a right to be free from age discrimination when they have reached 16.

The supreme court ruling was in response to a case brought forward by the advocacy group Make It 16 — a nonpartisan, youth-led campaign that has been on a three-year legal journey to lower the voting age to 16. 

The government swiftly responded to the landmark ruling by announcing plans to draft legislation lowering the voting age to 16.

The then prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, said, "I personally support a decrease in the voting age but it is not a matter simply for me or even the government."

When asked during the parliament session in November, the current Prime Minister, Chris Hipkins, has also shown his support for lowering the voting age.

Priyanca Radhakrishnan, who made history by becoming the first Indian-born minister in New Zealand, put her full support behind the decision. "As Minister for Youth, I'm an advocate for our young people at the Cabinet table — and empowering youth voice is a priority for me," she said in an Instagram post.

However, the opinions of political parties have been divided.

While the Green Party is pushing for immediate action to lower the voting age, the largest opposition party, the National party, has been opposed to the change. 

"Obviously, we've got to draw a line somewhere," said National party leader Christopher Luxon. "We're comfortable with the line being 18. Lots of different countries have different places where the line's drawn, and from our point of view, 18's just fine."

Judge Stephen Kos' dissenting opinion in the Supreme Court decision highlights the political debate surrounding lowering the voting age to 16.

"Altering voter age is not a neutral political action," Kos stated. 

"Whichever direction it goes in is likely to benefit some parties disproportionately. That consequence is perfectly fine, but it is one of the reasons voting age is reserved and requires a parliamentary supermajority," his statement read.

The bill requires 75% support from the parliament to lower the voting age for general elections. However, it only needs the support of 51% to lower the age for local elections, and that's where Make It 16 has been concentrating its efforts.

With hope in its sights, the Make It 16 campaign is pushing forward with the goal of giving individuals aged 16 and above a voice in local elections.

Sanat Singh, co-director of Make It 16, spoke to The NRI Nation, saying, "We've been lobbying Members of Parliament, especially those in cabinet to come up with a piece of legislation that, at least at minimum, guarantees us a voting age of 16, for local elections."

With numbers indicating that they might have the votes to make this a reality for local elections, he stated, "Right now, we're incredibly close for a separated voting age, a voting age of 16, at local elections, and that, that is really exciting for us."

Ella Kumar, a trailblazer in New Zealand's political scene as the first person of Indian origin to chair a local board, is not entirely convinced about lowering the voting age to 16. Kumar is the chairperson of the Puketapapa Local Board — one of 21 local boards in Auckland. 

In an interview with The NRI Nation, Kumar stated her reservation about the proposed change,  "I don't feel that the youth have enough information about what they're voting for." 

Despite attempts to gain community participation in her local board, Kumar says she has noticed a lack of response from ethnic communities. In her view, the biggest hurdle is the high language barrier and the need for more education about how central and local governments work. According to her, there needs to be more than just lowering the voting age to tackle this issue. 

Kumar emphasizes the need for a thorough civics education before any changes are made.

"If education were increased, where people got a chance to really get to know what local boards are about and what they're voting for, I would be for it," Kumar says.

In anticipation of the lower voting age, Make It 16 has directed its attention to enhancing civic education.

"There's a lot of work that we're doing around civics education, so working with schools, teachers, community groups, to try and figure out the best way to deliver a really comprehensive civics education," says Singh. 

Make It 16 has also established grassroots teams in Canterbury and Otago to raise awareness and gain strong public support from youth through canvassing. 

"We're covering as many bases as possible to ensure that by 2025 young people are voting in local elections, and then hopefully by 2028 in general elections as well," says Singh. 

New Zealand's diverse demographic has undergone significant changes over the years. According to the 2018 Census, the Indian diaspora makes up nearly 5% of the country's population with a median age that is seven years lower than the country at just 30 years old.  

Singh believes that ethnic communities stand to benefit from a change in the voting age as the younger generation are often the first people in their families to go to university. 

"Gen Z is a much more diverse age group; it's a much more accepting age group. So we hope that lowering the voting age to 16 brings that diversity and brings that acceptance and inclusivity into the way we do politics in New Zealand, but also provides that really critical voice that's needed for the sort of first-generation migrants that are coming into our country who are also systematically disadvantaged," says Singh.

In New Zealand, local elections are held through the postal vote, which Singh says disadvantages many communities of color.

"They don't have permanent housing, and they don't have all their affairs in order to get a mail-in ballot," he says.

Singh argues that lowering the voting age would allow the younger generation a social environment conducive to good participation. 

"We're just going to give a really great opportunity for kids in these ethnic communities to finally be able to step up and have a substantial voice that they wouldn't have had before, " says Singh.

Garry Gupta, an Indian migrant who has called New Zealand home for over a decade, is part of the over 75% of Indian immigrants born outside New Zealand. 

Three years ago, he founded the Migrant Careers Support Trust, a nonprofit assisting immigrants in pursuing their career goals in New Zealand. 

During an interview with The NRI Nation, he recently voiced his support for reducing the voting age to 16.

"Kids of the first generation migrants, you know, the second generation migrants basically are so much part of the country," says Gupta. "It's like the right which they're waiting for."

According to Gupta, young New Zealanders are more politically engaged than ever, thanks partly to their schooling system, and they come out of these institutions primed and ready for democracy. 

"I think the youngsters are definitely much more engaged than even their parents or adults many times," says Gupta. "Democracy is about the inclusion of every possible scenario, whether it's the inclusion of race, inclusion of gender, so why not inclusion of age?"

Gupta highlights how in 1893, New Zealand made history and blazed the trail for women's suffrage — by becoming the first country in the world to let its female population cast a vote.

But 130 years from that defining moment, Gupta asks, "What is stopping us now?"

"New Zealand needs to ensure that we remain that progressive country we are," says Gupta. 

The NRI Nation