The Malta Independent 20 March 2018, Tuesday

Voting at 16: a conundrum

Simon Mercieca Monday, 5 March 2018, 08:27 Last update: about 15 days ago

Our government has legislated in favour of lowering the voting age to sixteen; a move that began in 2013 when 16-year olds were given the right to vote in local council elections. However, this move   could not be tested properly, because Government reduced the frequency of local council elections. Still our politicians described such change as a success.

For many, in particular those coming from the social sciences, this new law is a progressive turn. The Opposition also voted in favour. No politician would dare challenge such change, even if there were and are many sceptics about this new legislation. Unfortunately, they were not represented in Parliament.

I can understand why the Opposition is unanimous with Government on this issue. First, it does not want to be accused of being on the wrong side of history as was the case when women were finally granted the right to vote. Though the Nationalists ended up introducing friendly measures for women, including the right that, once married, they could keep their jobs in the public sector, their way of voting still haunts our historical memory.  Secondly opposing such a proposal would have meant antagonizing the potential voters in the teens bracket who are fertile ground for any party. These 16-year-olds are less prone to bear animosity towards a party that has been long in Government because that goes beyond these youngsters’ historical memory.

 What makes this legislation particular, is the arbitrary or ‘relativistic’ way it has been introduced. This  could explain why it has not had much support from the public. On the contrary, it has generated fear among the population and a number of individuals have spoken out loud against it. I was surprised to find that among these critics are individuals who normally tend to favour a liberal agenda.

 I have used the term relativistic specifically because this law is being justified through this Marxist principle. In the past, the voting age was an ‘absolute’ yardstick. For the past 180 years, the voting age was always considered to be the cutting point at which a person became a fully mature adult and independent citizen. This new legislation has turned this basic principle topsy-turvy.  While Government is officially acknowledging the fact that its citizens are now eligible to vote at 16, the age of adulthood has been retained at 18. Turning a blind eye to the inconsistency and illogicality of this new legislation obliges us to face an absurd situation where a 16-year-old can now vote yet he/she cannot drive, cannot join the Armed Forces or the Police Force but will still benefit from anonymity should he/she appear in court before the judiciary. It is clearly possible that this addlepated legislation has been introduced because both sides fear losing territory and are blinded by a compulsion to ensure further secure adulation.  

Those in favour of this legislation have counter argued that this law is giving youngsters the chance to participate early in a democratic process. Moreover, they insist that the voice of our teenagers is now being heard!  Incidentally, the main political argument that has been made abroad in favour of this type of legislation was missing during our local debate. It has been stressed that this move is intended to encourage youngsters to participate early in the voting process to revert the general tendency of increased voting absenteeism. Such a statement is conceding Western Democracy’s failure to entice youngsters to vote. In Malta, this should not have been a problem as we still enjoy a high political turnout. Still, could it be that our politicians are envisaging a point when absenteeism will make its voice truly felt because a section of the electorate is becoming more disgruntled with our two main parties? Therefore, the problem here is not that 16-year-old minors have been given the right to vote, but that voting is being divorced from what is legally considered to be the age of maturity.

 When the voting system was introduced in Malta, in 1849, voting rights were given to males who had to have a certain standing, and who were 21  or over. In other words, 21 was considered the age when a person, in this case a male, became an adult. When universal suffrage was introduced in Malta in 1947, this age bracket was retained.  Then, in the 1970s, many countries in Europe started lowering the voting age to eighteen. Malta’s Labour Government followed suit and the 1976 election was the first to be held with 18-year-olds having the right to vote. But one needs to add that back then, all juridical legislation was pegged to this age limit. At eighteen, it was legally possible to undertake contracts without the need of the authorization of parents or guardians and for all intents and purposes, including prosecution, these 18-year-olds were considered adults.

 In my opinion, here lies the problem and where a serious social conundrum has been generated. With a minor being given the right to vote, I ask: what happens once 16-year-olds start getting elected? Legally, they cannot enter into any legal contracts unless authorized by parents or guardians!  Nor can they enter into a sexual relationship with an adult. 

 Therefore, the problem with this legislation is not in the fact that the voting age per se was lowered, but the arbitrary manner in which this has been brought about.  What is even worse, and here lies the danger; we are already questioning the concept of age and maturity. The risk here is that we will be going back to the Middle Ages when children were practically considered young adults with all the burdens that that entailed. We are destroying the less onerous childhood we want for our children. 

Those in the West who think that this measure is going to save our crumbling democracy are in for a surprise. Democracy is not going to be saved by allowing our 16-year-olds to vote. On the contrary, there is the risk of a counter offensive that will put our Western democracies into a pickle because, with this law, Parliament has divorced voting from the collective responsibility it has had so far.  The worse thing that could happen to a collective responsibility is that it turns arbitrary. And lest we forget, according to law, collective responsibility is attained with adulthood. Minors are exonerated from this collective responsibility. 

 It is here where our politicians are failing abysmally. They are overlooking the need of having the age of maturity at par with that of voting.  Instead, they are experimenting with the Marxist ideas of using relativistic policies to build a new social construct. In this case, they are replacing the equilibrium between age to vote and age of adulthood with a pedagogical process. In truth for such a social construct to be a successful one, these two should be at par. This law has disrupted such a fragile equilibrium. This is why in the long run, this law will fail to achieve what it is seeking to attain. Instead of teaching youngsters to be more responsible and participatory in a democratic process, this law will end up weakening such process. Voting will cease to be seen as a collective act of responsibility because it has failed to draw a clear line between adolescence and adulthood. Voting is no longer something confined to the adult world. It is time we stop considering children and young adolescents as fully-fledged adults when it only suits us.




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