Northern Ireland has just had its seventh Assembly election since 1998, and come May next year, voters will be casting their ballots in another council election. But only if they are registered and over 18. With every election, the issue of voting age rears its head, and rightly so.
At 16, you pay tax and national insurance when you start work, you can leave your parental home, leave full time education, get married, and apply for social security. You become part of the economic and societal structures that are governed by those who are elected. Decisions on policy and direction that are made by Ministers now, and in the next few years, will affect young people, their lives, their work opportunities, and will inform decisions that they make regarding their own futures.
Strategies to deal with issues in education for example, legislation on social security, on housing, on the climate and environment will all shape the lives and experiences of our young people in the near future. Young people are going to be impacted by decisions that are made in the next few years for longer than the rest of us, and yet they have no formal say in the outcome of elections that will determine who makes those decisions.
In Scotland and Wales, young people already have their say in local elections, with nearly 100,000 young people in Scotland casting votes in 2014. But not here in Northern Ireland.
The Green Party NI brought the first motion to the Assembly on this matter ten years ago, and we have called on the Executive to make representations to the Northern Ireland Office to reform the voting age in Northern Ireland, lowering it to 16, which Executive Parties have consistently refused to do.
One of the common misconceptions is that 16 and 17 year olds do not have the political maturity to cast votes. Yet the same logic would hold that some miraculous transformation occurs at that arbitrary threshold, when we all somehow attain this elusive knowledge in a magical puff of smoke as the clock strikes midnight on our 18th birthday.
These kinds of arguments raise the key issue of political awareness and education. In the information age, young people are incredibly politically aware, if not leading the charge on key issues, perhaps more so than older generations. Climate action is one obvious example, but consider others such as racial equality and LGBTQ+ rights. We need to have a serious rethink in how politicians, political parties and the entire electoral system engages with young people, looking closely at the ways we educate, teach and talk about politics with children and young people.
Politics as a school subject is not mandatory, nor is it offered in most schools until post-GCSE, when many young people have left formal education. At AS and A Level, my studies compared and contrasted the Westminster style of government and the US system. We learned about different voting systems, and discussed the differences between political parties. Whilst this was all useful, most political learning happens at home. We did not learn what the role of councils were, how policymaking works, what the difference is between a Councillor, an MLA, or an MP, how laws are made, how to engage, and how decisions that are taken by government affect our day to day lives.
Not everyone will be passionate about tallying at an election count, crunching numbers and obsessing about exit polls. Others may not want to get into policy debates with friends and family, or attend public protests. But decisions made (or not made) by those elected have ramifications for us all.
If political structures stop excluding people, perhaps people will take more interest in politics. If we want young people to participate fully in our society, it only makes sense to give them a say in how it is governed; including making sure that they are equipped with all of the knowledge and tools to make informed decisions.
It is time that we trust young people with a vote and let them have a real say in whoever is in charge of shaping their future.
Rachel Woods was Green Party MLA for North Down from October 2019 until March 2022. During that time she was a member of the Committee for Justice and sponsor of the Domestic Abuse (Safe Leave) Bill.