Sunday 25 September 2022

Up next: Voting while still in their nappies

This article first appeared in Malta Today

I suppose you can already tell by my title that I really do not agree with the idea of granting 16-year-olds the right to vote.

The idea became even more off-putting when it was clear that the Opposition was jumping on board with it, and the reasons why they were doing so are all too clear. At a time when those who are middle-aged and older have become more and more disillusioned with both major political parties, both sides of the divide have something to worry about. The PN is split as it has never been before because of those who have never truly embraced (or downright oppose) Delia, while the Labour party is facing another type of disenchanted voter who feels completely let down, and whose voice is not being listened to. The general consensus is that politicians, once in power, don’t even bother to put up the pretence of keeping their promises, and it is no longer unusual to hear the phrase: “that’s it from me, no one is getting my vote.”

Faced by this prospect, both Labour and PN know they have to do something to rope in more numbers and the only way to do so is by setting their sights on a new demographic. It is no longer enough to target those who will be 18 when an election comes along (after all, with the falling birth rate, that is probably not going to provide a wide enough pool of potential voters). The only solution, therefore, was to lower the voting age, creating a whole new segment of voters within that crucial two year gap. Even allowing for those teenagers who will not bother to vote (of which, I predict, there will be many), that still leaves enough of a percentage to make a difference to compensate for the older age groups who have truly given up and washed their hands of the whole electoral system as it stands.

If the parties themselves were not enough of an indication of how this will all play out, there was the obligatory endorsement by Pulse (the Labour youth branch) and SDM (Studenti Demokristjani Maltin – the PN youth branch), so you can already picture where all this is heading come election time. Political campaigning and promises will now be geared towards getting out the teen vote and social media will be swamped once again with partisan bickering where catchy slogans are mimicked and snazzy but ultimately meaningless hashtags are thrown around. Sixth Form and MCAST colleges will likewise be transformed into mini campaigning platforms.

Gosh, I can’t wait.

I have read all the arguments in favour of this decision and I am not buying any of them. Hearing MPs talking about ‘maturity’ and ‘empowerment’ in order to sell the idea to the public had me scoffing like, well, like a teenager. It also does not impress me one bit that we will be only the second country in the EU to have lowered the voting age. So what? Before I’m accused of not having ‘enough faith in young people’, or something along those lines, let me just point out that from what I see and hear, teenagers today are even less mature and empowered than when I was their age. This is not because they are unable or unwilling to grow up, but because in many cases they are not being given enough space and allowed do so by helicopter parents who hover over them with suffocating intensity. You do not automatically become an adult because you go and vote inside a polling booth, but because you start taking your own decisions in every aspect of your life and being responsible for the consequences from a young age.

So let’s just think about that for a minute: how many teenagers decide all by themselves which ‘O’ and ’A’ levels they are going to pursue? I know I did; it never even occurred to me to turn it into a whole family discussion because this was my future, and I was the only one who knew what subjects interested me and what I was good at. Can the same really be said for today’s generation? It doesn’t just stop at educational choices either; you can see it everywhere you look, where you have parents applying for jobs on behalf of their kids, taking them to interviews, and doing as much as possible for them. I am sure it is all well-meaning and truly done out of love, but unfortunately it is only contributing to stunting their growth and preventing them from learning how to make their own decisions.

The whole trajectory of growing up also has to be taken into consideration when talking about lowering the voting age. What exactly are we trying to accomplish with this? On the one hand we are saying 16-year-olds are perfectly capable of choosing who is to govern the country, and yet on the other hand, we continue to provide them with stipends, which is basically paying them for going to school (rather than urging them to do a part-time job to learn the real value of money). I know this will seem like blasphemy to some ears but stipends are a luxury; something which few countries can afford and which Malta, at this point, does not dare rescind – in fact, the few times it has been suggested were probably the only occasions that students took to the streets in protest.

It seems to me that rather than encouraging personal evolvement in sensible, gradual stages, we are jumping back and forth between stages in a way which simply does not make sense and which is sending mixed signals. In so many areas, teenagers are considered by law to be minors and under-age (and rightly so) but suddenly we are saying they are old enough to take adult decisions because it is politically expedient.

We do not even want them to be critical thinkers within the educational system, but expect them to regurgitate what they have learned by heart on to an exam paper, and yet we are now saying that they are mature enough to listen to the candidates pitching their various policies and then cast their ballot for the best politicians. What am I saying? Even some adults do not base their decisions on who to vote for after weighing who is the best of the lot, but vote out of blind party loyalty or because he is the village doctor/lawyer, or in exchange for some political favour – and we can see some of the results in our Parliament today. So how can we expect 16-year-olds, who are often influenced by family, their friends and their peer group, to really know what they are voting for?

What I’m really afraid of though is that it will simply reinforce the status quo. Those who come from very politically-engaged families will be the first to go out and vote, while those who are less interested and ambivalent about both parties and politics in general, will simply not bother.

At this rate, why not just keep making the voting age younger and younger in order to cement the generational pattern of brainwashed voting even further? Why not 12-year-olds, and then 8-year-olds and eventually toddlers still in their nappies, who will have a party emblem slapped on their bottom by their parents as they waddle towards the voting booth to register their vote.

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