JAMES DEBONO asked psychologist Bernard Caruana and Dr Andrew Azzopardi, university lecturer in the Department of Youth and Community Studies, whether 16-year-olds are mature enough to vote
Psychologist Bernard Caruana has no doubt that 16 and 17-year-olds have the aptitude for having a mature preference for political candidates. “There is no reason to believe that the typical youth at the age of 16 is not capable of taking independent and responsible decisions,” he states with conviction.
Caruana says that theories which measure intelligence – like the cognitive development theory of Jean Piaget, or Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory on moral development – show that “by age 16, our youths would have reached a stage in their cognitive development which is comparable to that of adults.”
For Caruana the argument for lowering the voting age is a political one. “The age of 18 was widely accepted only after the debates leading to a change of mind in the 1970s. Today there is another debate to reduce the voting age to 16 instead of 18.”
Austria was the first country in the European Union to do so in 2007. Other countries like the United Kingdom could follow.
Lecturer Dr Andrew Azzopardi concurs that age is “only an artificial demarcation” in establishing maturity. “If you ask me about people being mature, I could question how many adults are mature when it comes to the way they vote?”
Surely society has changed its criteria for entrance in the adult word in a number of other sectors like employment and sexual relationships. “Let us not forget that what were previously activities attached to adults, have been shifted towards youth,” says Azzopardi.
Caruana also points out that the means of information have developed so much that young people “can access information about anything just by the press of a button on the internet… This exposure to different opinions enables our youths to form their own independent opinion at a much younger age than youths in past years.”
But can a 16-year-old decide in the public interest when voting?
Caruana disagrees with “conservatives who talk of ‘the public interest’, and the notion that ‘democracy is all about making good decisions’.”
“What constitutes a ‘good’ decision depends very much on what your goals and interests are, and its clear that there is no broad agreement on that. Instead, democracy is a system for making our decisions – decisions we as a society can own. It is not a system for gathering information and reaching a rational decision about what we should do – it is a system for moderating conflicting interests without the need for a messy civil war.”
Caruana goes further by saying that giving the vote to younger people could also inject a dose of idealism in the political system. “Psychology also tells us that the days of youth are full of idealism, an idealism which is many times shattered when one realises that we need a social compromise to survive. In this respect, lowering the voting age could mean that there will be more individuals voting for ideals rather than personal interest.”
But according to Azzopardi the inclusion of 16 and 17-year-olds – which number over 20,000 – in the electoral process would create a powerful new electoral lobby.
“How ready are political parties to give the opportunity to young people to experiment with such an important tool as the vote, when the vote of young people between the ages of 16-24 would be close to 50,000?”
Azzopardi asks whether Maltese society is prepared for of the actual political consequences of granting younger people the right to vote. “Young people can create a strong lobby, the impact of their vote would be immense – are we ready for this?”
Azzopardi sees another risk in lowering the voting age as that younger people would give more importance to the ‘here and now’ than to long term planning.
“Adults may lose control over young people when it comes to forward planning, something which young people may not be strong at. Giving youth all that power can create an imbalance and instability.”
One possible risk is that issues like university stipends could be blown up out of proportion as parties seek to win the teen vote.
Another risk could be posed by far-right demagogues like Norman Lowell who left a mark by using the internet before the established political parties sharpened their digital tools.
“So we need to counter such a proposal with a strong educational campaign with is embedded in the curriculum,” Azzopardi observes, while seeing the proposal as a sign of the “progressive stance that Joseph Muscat promised he will be giving to his leadership.”
Azzopardi contends that such a proposal will not only give “new life and energy to youth involvement in politics”, and “give young people a stronger voice when it comes to decision-making and taking.”
It will also give the MLP an opportunity “to reconcile with this social group that tends to favour the PN.” But “will this be enough to ‘bring them back?” asks Azzopardi.
From child to adult
The fact that a 16-year-old will vote will obviously challenge this social hierarchy because young people will have the right to make political choices in “full confidentiality and anonymity.”
This could contradict Maltese law which considers all under 18-year-olds as minors who fall under parental responsibility. “Is the secrecy of the vote compatible with the legal status enjoyed by under 18-year-olds?” asks Azzopardi.
Azzopardi notes that over the past years young people have not been as involved in politics as was the case in the 60s and 80s. “The discussion on this proposal is already a significant step… it will create a jump start in the level of involvement.”
Giving younger people the right to vote can also generate “a passion to ask questions, to debate, to think, to analyse things before voting.”
Yet judging by replies given by young people in some vox pops it is not clear whether young people want to be given this power. “At the age of 16 young people are busy developing their identity, choosing their careers, developing relationships, doing their O-Levels – so I wonder if such an opportunity will be taken on board or whether it will be placed on the back burner of their priorities,” says Azzopardi.
Azzopardi acknowledges that the first impact that this proposal had on people seems to be ‘iffy’. “People like the idea on one hand but do not feel confident enough to give all this ‘power’ to young people,” says Azzopardi.
There could also be “an element of moral panic” in some of the negative reactions to the proposal. This should not be a surprise in a society where the media generally “associates young people with drug and alcohol consumption, dangerous driving and deviousness.” It will be very difficult to change this perception Azzopardi claims.
Irrespective of whether people vote at 16 or 18 Azzopardi finds citizenship education to be lacking in the Maltese educational system, and says a change is needed in the social studies curriculum which should “really prepare young people/students to understand communities, cultures, ethnicity and the different roles institutions have in society.”
Another way to help young people to become good citizens is to strengthen other mechanisms like school councils and youth based organisations, a move that would have to take place before going for “such a drastic transformation and transition of power.”
Azzopardi says serious and scientific analysis on Muscat’s proposal before a final decision is taken. He is wary of using local councils as a test case, preferring other forms of research to establish whether this initiative will be implemented at local council level or at local council and national level, but that such a decision should not be taken lightly without weighing its social impact and a shake-up of the educational system.