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Monday, January 30, 2012

Do we need to have an "age" at which people can vote?

Do we need to have an "age" at which people can vote?

Guest post by Alex Hilton

For unrelated purposes I have been doing some interesting reading around the field of medical capacity and it strikes me that a similar approach could be applied to entitlement to vote, thereby obviating the periodic debates over which arbitrary age should mark this right.

The major problem with the status quo is its inconsistency. When people say that under-16s are too puerile to vote, they don't propose a corresponding test of the seriousness of those over 18. Similarly people refer to a lack of understanding, yet never question the understanding of people over the age of 18. In fact there are considerable issues surrounding the voting entitlements of people who lack capacity through age, illness or disability, particularly when such people vote with help through proxy or postal voting.

So if mental capacity, understanding of politics, seriousness or indeed the ability to speak and read English are not criteria on which the right to vote is limited, what is the logic that determines why a young person should not be able to vote?

It's worth looking at how young people's medical capacity is determined. To put it briefly, all young people are deemed to be able to make potentially life and death decisions about their healthcare if they assert that capacity and if the doctors believe they have sufficient understanding. Crucially, it is only when someone, a parent or doctor for example, seeks to overrule this assertion that the government gets involved. All people are deemed to have the capacity to make decisions about their medical care from the age of 16 unless there is an additional reason, such as a learning disability, that might equally apply to an adult.

So thinking about this important, legal, life and death precedent, how could this principle be applied to voting? Actually, it could be done simply. You could just give the right to vote to any young person who wants it, regardless of their age.

From the age of 18 it's illegal not to complete the electoral register accurately. I don't see any reason why you couldn't have an additional box asking if there are any younger people in the household who would like to vote but who are not yet 18. You could require the date of birth and signature of the person at this stage.

Similarly to the principle of medical capacity, it could be at the point that someone challenges this assertion that the capacity of the voter is tested. And just to make sure there isn't an "arms race" of complaints about capacity, you would charge a fee to challenge that covers the council's costs of administering the complaint, and if it is upheld, the complainant would be reimbursed through a fine chargeable to the person responsible for completing the electoral registration form.

This would be testing the young person's autonomy. And what better qualification could there be for earning the right to vote that you would be prepared to apply to adults too if you had to. We already withhold the right to vote from adults who are insane or imprisoned - what's that if not a test of autonomy?

And you have to admit there is a graceful symmetry in the qualification to vote being the act of asserting your right to do so.



DevonChap said...

So, if in 2010 I'd filled in the forms for my 5 year old son, then told him that Nasty My Brown is a bully who shouts at people and throws things, like Callum at school does, while Nice Mr Cameron likes Ben10 I could have got another Tory vote?

How do you know the child is asking for a vote because they want it? How are they expected to be informed (I don't know if you have seen it lately but Newsround's hardly ever covers PMQs).

We let children make decisions on their own medical treatment since it effects them personally, but voting is about things that will effect others. My 2 year old daughter doesn't really care about others much.

There has to be a cut off, we can't expect the electoral registrars to assess the competence of every child who applies. We can discuss if the cut off should be 16 but Alex is just being silly (then again very few 16 years have voted when given the chance).

Robert said...

Well for me I'm an idiot so under the old lunatic law would not be allowed to vote, but of course I'm sensible enough to know labour is not worth bothering with any more and I cannot vote Tory.

Dangerous ground when you start looking at people on medical grounds old Adolph had a cure for that one, the way it's going labour will soon have the same cure

The Red Flag said...

Basically, there has to be a definable line somewhere. 18 is the age at which you can marry without consent, purchase alcohol, watch X rated films, be deployed on active operations as a soldier so it seems the right to vote fits nicely there.

Salmond is causing a bit of behind the scenes problems deep inside Labour and the Lib Dems though I should imagine. Both have been toying with the idea of lowering the voting age to 16, now Salmond wants 16 year-olds to be allowed to vote in his referendum suddenly they are not in favour anymore.