Time for Holness Administration to rethink the voting age

BY Yvad Billings

Thursday, April 19, 2018

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In a representative democracy voting is part of the political process and is also the method by which the electorate appoints its representatives in its government.

Now, over the years, the voting age has been reduced to 18 in many countries. However, today, more and more people are arguing for reducing the voting age to 16.

Here, one wonders whether Prime Minister Andrew Holness will take that bold step of reducing the voting age in Jamaica to 16. After all, the prime minister was thrust into leadership positions at an early age, so if there is anyone who can lead from the front in making a case for a change in the voting age it would be Holness.

This, no doubt, would be provocative and upend decades of political tradition, but such a change will allow for greater participation in the country's democratic process from a wider cross section of the population.

No doubt, some people will argue that 16-year-olds are too inexperienced to make informed decisions and therefore can't be taken seriously. However, that's balderdash and not supported by research.

Although such a move would be groundbreaking in Jamaica, certainly it would not be beyond the pale, as there are many countries, such as Brazil, Austria, Malta, Nicaragua, Ecuador, among others, that have already made 16 the voting age. Moreover, many countries are allowing 16-year-olds to vote at the local election level.

The fact is there is no significant difference in the cognitive capabilities between an 18- and a 16-year-old.

The Washington Post, in a recent piece, noted that: “The best predictor of whether someone will vote is whether they voted previously, and research suggests that 18 — a time of disruption and transition away from home and into the workforce or college — is not an optimum time to get young people into the habit.”

The article cited the work of Joshua A Douglas, a law professor at the University of Kentucky College of Law, who has studied this issue. Douglas argued, according to the report, that, “High school provides a more supportive environment, especially when twinned with improvements in civic education. He said there is no difference between the cognitive brain development of a 16-year-old and an 18-year-old; they are both capable of the reasoned, deliberate decision-making involved in voting.”

He further argued that “16, by contrast, is a period of relative stability when young people are invested in their communities and are learning about civic engagement in school. Lowering the voting age can, therefore, create a habit of voting and increase overall turnout in later years”.

Jamaica, like many other democratic countries over the years, has witnessed a low voter turnout and this certainly underscored the point of Professor Douglas that sensitising and cultivating the knowledge and practice of voting at an early age will augur well for the future.

The fact is some young people are more politically astute and even more informed than older people.

That said, spurious arguments can be made to disenfranchise any group of people, as evidenced in the past when blacks, the landless, and women were not allowed to vote.

The truth is Jamaica has good grounds on which to lower its voting age, given the fact that the age of consent has recently been increased from 14 to 16.

The question is will the Andrew Holness-led Administration take the revolutionary step of lowering the voting age to 16 or continue with the status quo. I wouldn't hold my breath!

Yvad Billings is a Readers Bureau Fellow residing in New York, USA. Send comments to the Observer or yvad21

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