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Who is an “adult?” New Zealand court rules 18 year voting age “discriminatory”

A big change in the voting laws in New Zealand may be on the way soon. The Supreme Court in that country ruled today that the minimum age to vote in elections – currently 18 – is “discriminatory.” That decision didn’t immediately change the voting age, but the question must now be addressed by the Parliament. The decision was rendered in a case brought by an activist group seeking to have the voting age lowered to 16. And they may have the upper hand in this dispute because they based their demand on a provision in New Zealand’s Bill of Rights which declares that citizens are to be “free from age discrimination” when they turn 16. The issue that the Parliament will have to wrestle with is whether or not being restricted from voting constitutes “discrimination.” (Reuters)

New Zealand’s highest court ruled on Monday that the country’s current voting age of 18 was discriminatory, forcing parliament to discuss whether it should be lowered.

The case, which has been going through the courts since 2020, was bought by advocacy group Make It 16, which wants the age lowered to include 16 and 17 year olds.

The Supreme Court found that the current voting age of 18 was inconsistent with the country’s Bill of Rights, which gives people a right to be free from age discrimination when they have reached 16.

We’ve been dealing with similar questions in the United States since the founding of the country. At what age is a person considered to be an “adult” who is capable of making decisions for themselves and providing informed consent for various activities? The question is clearly an important one, particularly when it comes to voting because the voter is helping to determine who will lead or represent them and establish and enforce the nation’s laws.

I find myself being of two minds when it comes to such questions. Here in the United States, barely a century ago, it was not uncommon for children to drop out of school and begin working full-time (particularly on farms) when they were in their early teens. Marriages between children as young as 14 or 15 were not all that uncommon, particularly when the kids had been rushing the “courtship” phase of the relationship without any access to birth control. Adult responsibilities could be thrust upon you at a very early age, particularly if a parent passed away early.

But in the modern era, scientific research has suggested that this isn’t an optimal way to structure such decisions. The general consensus among researchers these days indicates that the human brain, along with the ability to reason, doesn’t fully mature until the age of 25. And when I look back at some of the incredibly stupid things I did in my early twenties, I supposed I would be hard-pressed to argue with that conclusion. But it seems highly unlikely that people would tolerate having all of their rights suspended until they reached that age.

The minimum voting age in the vast majority of countries is 18. There are a few countries, primarily in the western Pacific, where the legal age is 19, 20, or even 21. Conversely, in large parts of South America, people can vote beginning at age 16, just as they are now considering in New Zealand.

Here in the United States, we have an abysmal record in terms of establishing the legal age of adulthood. Different states set the minimum age for marriage anywhere between 15 (under some circumstances) and 18. You can get a learner’s permit to drive an automobile as young as 14 (in the Dakotas). You can enlist in the military and go off to fight and die for your country at 17 but you have to be 21 to buy a pack of cigarettes or a beer. Your parents can go to jail if you get a tattoo before you turn 18, but an alarming number of doctors now think you can consent to irreversible genital mutilation surgery at least two years prior to that.

Can’t we all just pick one age when you are legally considered to be an “adult” and simply standardize all of the rules? Apparently not. But this patchwork system makes the entire concept seem like a joke.

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