Push to lower Australia’s compulsory voting age to 16 as advocate says youngsters feeling ‘disenfranchised’

Push to lower Australia’s compulsory voting age to 16 as advocate says youngsters feeling ‘disenfranchised’
  • PublishedApril 4, 2024

At 16, you can learn to drive, open a bank account, get a job, pay taxes, be on the Organ Donor Register, and apply to join the army. 

But there is something you are still considered too young to do — vote.

Make It 16 campaign co-founder Tabitha Stephenson-Jones, 19, thinks young people need to have a say in what the future looks like more than ever.

“Young people at the moment are feeling … quite disenfranchised about the whole system,” she says.

“[It] kind of encompasses everything from the cost-of-living crisis, the housing crisis.

“It’s really, really difficult for young people to move around in the world.”

Photo of young woman with blonde hair, smiling, in front of a colourful graphic of a voting box with papers sticking out.
Tabitha Stephenson-Jones says young people should have a formal say in politics.(ABC: Joseph Baronio, graphic by Sharon Gordon)

Ms Stephenson-Jones, along with Archie Coppola, established the national movement to lower the voting age in 2022.

“We saw a massive amount of young people heading to the streets protesting, talking to their local MPs, posting on social media [about issues at the time],” she says.

“[But] we saw … that kind of advocacy didn’t really translate to the polling booth.

“They didn’t have any formal say in our politics.”

Could young voters change politics in Australia? 

Aazeen, 15, believes so.

She says teenagers know a lot about the world right now.

“I definitely think young people will be interested in politics these days and they are generally interested in things that relate to them,” Aazeen says.

“I think it would change voting significantly because obviously, young people have different opinions to that of adults.”

Photo of a smiling teenage girl in school uniform in front of a graphic of a ballot paper and a stack of books.
Aazeen says young people know more about the world than many adults give them credit for.(ABC: Che Chorley, graphic by Sharon Gordon)

Analysis of the 2022 federal election undertaken by the Australian National University shows that young people are drifting away from the major parties.

Support for the Coalition in particular is waning, but it is increasing for the Greens.

In 2018, Greens senator Jordon Steele-John introduced a bill to lower the voting age.

While it was unsuccessful, the Greens have not given up on the idea.

They currently have a bill on lowering the voting age awaiting debate in the upper house.

But apart from the Greens and a few independents, political parties today are coy about whether they support the concept of lowering the voting age.

The federal Labor government doesn’t have a position on allowing 16-year-olds to vote, but Minister for Youth Anne Aly told the ABC it was important for young people to be engaged in politics as it had an effect on their lives.

When asked about their stance, the Liberals would not comment, but Shadow Minister for Youth Angie Bell said there were many ways young people under the age of 18 could enter the political debate and have a voice, including “by joining a political party”.

When was the voting age last changed? 

Even 18-year-olds were once considered too young to vote in Australia.

When Australia became a federation in 1901, the voting age for those eligible was 21.

Fifty-one years ago, Australia’s voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 by Gough Whitlam, the Labor prime minister at the time, with bipartisan support.

Currently, those aged 16 can enrol to vote, but they are unable to exercise their democratic right until they are 18.

Are 16-year-olds allowed to vote anywhere in the world?

Although it may not be a reality in Australia, several countries around the world have already lowered their voting ages to 16, including Malta, Argentina and Cuba.

In 2007, the voting age in Austria was lowered from 18 to 16. In Brazil and Ecuador, 16-year-olds are also allowed to vote, but it is not compulsory.

Scotland reduced the voting age from 18 to 16 for its independence vote in 2014.

In 2022, the New Zealand Supreme Court ruled that the country’s voting age of 18 was discriminatory, although the voting age has not changed.

Do young people really want to vote at 16?

Teenagers are divided on this issue.

Young people like Stella, 15, are in favour.

“I feel like 16-year-olds should be able to vote because … they should also have a say with what’s going on,” Stella says.

“Because if you think about it when we get older, it will be affecting us in a way too.”

Jayla, 15, also believes teens should be given the right to choose their political representatives at 16.

Colourful graphic featuring a smiling teen girl and a how to vote, ballot paper images around her.
Mariam says she doesn’t want the responsibility of voting.(ABC: Che Chorley, graphic by Sharon Gordon)

But Mariam, 15, says the young do not need that responsibility.

“With all the stuff that’s going on, no,” she says.

“I just want to be young. I don’t want to be thinking about voting and stuff like that.

“I just want to stay in my little-kid era.”

A smiling young South Asian boy in school uniform, voting cards, pencil drawn in graphic.
Omar doesn’t think 16-year-olds are mature enough to vote.(ABC: Che Chorley, graphic by Sharon Gordon)

Some, like Omar, 17, believe it will be too distracting for the young.

“I personally think they are more … focused on tertiary studies,” Omar says.

“So, anything that affects that or their education, I think that’s what young people would be most concerned about.”

He also thinks young people are not mature enough to make such important decisions.

Education ‘key’ to lowering voting age

Other teens want to be able to vote but say they don’t have enough knowledge to make an informed decision. 

Ms Stephenson-Jones says education is a key component of lowering the voting age.

“You can’t just have the voting age being lowered. You also have to partner that with education and making young people informed,” she says.

“It’s definitely an achievable goal.”

Tabitha, from Make It 16, says Australia’s democracy will be more robust if young people’s voices are included.

“Young people can learn how to drive. They can consent to medical procedures. They can get their own Medicare card,” she says.

“If they can work, they can pay tax. And that’s taxation without representation, which is not something we like to see within our political landscape.”


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