Monday, April 17, 2017

On Universal Suffrage

Captain Ric and I happened to find ourselves talking yesterday evening about the topic of various votes, at which point he expressed the opinion that we really should be using the same franchise for all our various votes - and specifically that it doesn't make sense that 16 year olds have the vote in Independence Referendums but not General Elections.

Now, in principle, I agree with this. Indeed, in principle I would also tend to the view that not only should we be using the same franchise for all relevant votes, but that we should also be using the same voting system for all elections - it really doesn't make sense that we use First Past the Post for General Elections, a modified d'Hondt system for Holyrood elections, Single Transferrable Vote for Council Elections, and an unmodified d'Hondt system for EU Elections.


There are a handful of things in Scottish society that are in fact better than their equivalents in the rest of the UK - notably, things like free university tuition, and free prescriptions. (I have a great deal of sympathy with people from England who complain about this being unfair. It is unfair.) Also, the lower drink-drive limit in Scotland seems to have worked out extremely well.

And I would certainly include extending the vote to 16-year-olds as one of those "better things", and I most certainly would include the use of proportional representation systems - one need only look at Scotland's cohort of MPs to show the failure of First Past the Post, with the SNP winning 56 out of 59 seats on just 50% of the vote.

And so, while I would agree that we should indeed use the same franchise in Scotland as in the rest of the UK, I would argue very strongly that this is a case where it is the rest of the UK that should be changing. And if Westminster won't change these things in the rest of the UK, I don't think Scotland should force itself to use a lesser system just to remain consistent. Why shackle yourself to an inferior system?

(And, likewise, where English people complain about the unfairness of Scots getting free tuition and prescriptions, their complaint shouldn't be about us getting them - it should be directed at Westminster for them not getting them.)

And it's worth noting that the reason Westminster won't change the voting system from First Past the Post is because that system very heavily favours the Tory and Labour parties. Which is a terrible reason for sticking with a lousy system, but it makes it very difficult to change - the only people who can change things are the very ones who benefit from keeping things as they are.

As regards the voting age, my position is fairly simple: by sixteen a person could, at least in theory, have left school and be in full-time employment, and therefore paying Income Tax, and I agree wholeheartedly with that old American slogan: no taxation without representation. If they're old enough to pay taxes, they absolutely should have the vote.

Of course, the main argument deployed against giving 16-year-olds the vote runs like this: why 16 and not 14? This same argument was no doubt deployed in exactly the same way when the age was moved from 21 down to 18, and it is the first step in an inevitable reductio ad absurdum argument - if 16 is conceded, why not 14, and then why not 12, 10, 8... heck, why not give newborns the vote?

Well, actually...

Increasingly, I've been coming to the view that maybe universal suffrage should mean exactly that. That is, a person should be assigned a vote as soon as they are born, with that vote to be exercised on their behalf by their primary caregiver (usually the mother) until either the person turns 16 or they fill in an appropriate form declaring that they will be voting in their own right.

And here's the thing: my youngest niece is a little over a year old. Consequently, she won't have any say in the upcoming referendum on Scottish independence. But whichever way that vote goes it will have a very profound effect on the rest of her life. Surely, then, someone should speak on her behalf?

Of course, this could give rise to the seemingly odd situation where someone votes at an extremely young age. But so what? If they care enough to have filled in the form to get a vote, and they care enough to go and exercise that vote, then presumably they care enough to have educated themselves on whatever it is they're voting about. Which, frankly, is rather more than can be said about a lot of current voters.

(It's worth noting that this arrangement would give disproportionate influence to the country's population of mums, who would suddenly find themselves exercising many more votes. And that's likely to have the effect of skewing public policy in their favour, which is perhaps not desirable. But the hard fact is that at present our public policy is already being skewed - in favour of pensioners, because older folk vote in disproportionately large numbers. And, bluntly, if the government is going to favour some groups over others because of a need to chase votes, then I'd rather it was mums - at least that would give education an appropriate level of importance.)

Actually, I would go even further than that. Not only would I grant a vote by proxy even to the youngest child in the country, I would also extend the franchise to any and all foreign nationals who are permanently resident here. If you're living in this country long-term, you're contributing to the future of this country - why then should you not have a say in how the country is run?

(I'd also end the practice of disenfranchising all our prisoners. Amongst other things, the EU have ruled that this practice is illegal under human rights legislation. The UK government, to their shame, promptly ignored this.)

Basically, I'm inclined to take the view that the right to vote should be considered a human right - something you get simply by virtue of being human, and something that can't be taken away from you as long as you remain human.

#18: "Armageddon's Children", by Terry Brooks
#19: "Pathfinder: Trail of the Hunted", by Amber E. Scott


Cap'n Ric said...

Still not convinced that 16 years old is the correct kind of age, but I don't know if I can articulate that any better than "I just don't think so".
How do you feel about prisoners voting?

Steph/ven said...

I'd require them to register for a postal vote in their 'home' constituency, but I would otherwise leave their full voting rights intact. Several reasons:

- One of the purposes of prison is to rehabilitate offenders back into society. Voting is one of the ways in which we are involved in society, and so it makes sense to encourage that form of engagement.

- Ensuring prisoners have representation the same as everyone else ensures that they're not just forgotten by politicians, or used as nothing more than a means for them to talk tough on crime.

- Probably most important: I'm increasingly of the view that voting should simply be a human right. Prisoners, even the very worst of them, remain human, so...

It's also worth noting that we're talking about a fairly small minority of potential voters here, and of a group that is fairly unlikely to vote anyway. So I don't see any compelling reason not to leave their voting rights intact - it's not like this will suddenly swing elections one way or the other.

(I can certainly see that there's an argument for some prisoners losing their voting rights. However, the UK government's policy of a blanket exclusion is just wrong - it's one thing to lose your vote if you're going to be in prison for the next 5 years anyway; it's quite another if you're incarcerated for a few weeks that just happen to coincide with an election.)