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Arbitrary Voting Rules

Entry 1938, on 2018-09-30 at 17:44:55 (Rating 2, Politics)

Richard Dawkins recently made an interesting tweet. He said: "Why aren't children allowed to vote? (Why weren't women once?) They are (were) deemed incapable of good judgment. But voting age is arbitrary. Could we devise a future democratic utopia in which only people deemed capable of good judgment vote, including children? I doubt it."

This is particularly relevant since New Zealand - the country where women first got the vote - is celebrating 125 years since that happened (1893). Yes, I know that 125 years isn't really a traditional major milestone, but these days, when women get so many special privileges, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised.

Anyway, the bigger point Dawkins was making (I think) is that many of our laws are arbitrary, and past laws were arbitrary in different ways, yet we now see them as being unfairly biased against different groups. Which current laws will be seen in that way in 50 or 100 years?

Maybe in the future our current society will be looked at as being totally bigoted towards young people, because currently anyone younger than 18 cannot vote. Some people might say that is just common sense, because young people don't have the cognitive ability to make good voting decisions, but that is exactly what many people said about women 125 years ago. And they were wrong... weren't they?

Also, note that the age has changed over the years. Initially it was 21, and stayed at that (except for temporary reductions during the wars) until it was reduced to 20 in 1969, and reduced again to 18 in 1974. But all of these numbers are entirely arbitrary. What real science is there to support the age reducing to 18 in 1974 instead of 16 in 1975? Those number seem to be just made up!

The initial voting requirements in New Zealand were that the person needed to be: male, a British subject, aged at least 21 years, an owner of land worth at least 50 pounds or a payer of a certain amount in yearly rental, and not be serving a criminal sentence for serious crimes such as treason.

Note that this meant that theoretically Maori were allowed to vote, except a lot of their land was held communally and this disqualified them. However a lot of European New Zealanders were also disqualified for similar reasons. The Maori seats were created in 1867, and this dispensed with the property requirement.

The first MMP election in New Zealand was in 1996, and at that time there were calls to abolish the Maori seats because the proportionality of the new system virtually guaranteed representation to Maori. Unfortunately, we still have those seats today.

So the whole history of the voting system is one of arbitrary rules, random changes, and very little rationality, although most people would say that the system has got fairer over time. Note that there are still people who dislike MMP, mainly because they think (with a certain degree of truth) that it gives too much power to smaller parties in coalition governments.

So with all of that voting-related arbitrariness out of the way, let's look at other age-related laws: it is legal for anyone 16 or over to have sex and presumably to have a family, but they can't get married until age 18, and they cannot enter a pub and buy alcohol until 18, but they can volunteer to join the military and head off to war to kill our enemies at 17. What sort of mixed up nonsense is this?

To be fair, laws will always suffer from various anomalies because they inevitably have to make absolute rulings on various matters which aren't really amenable to that sort of treatment. But it's hard to see what the alternatives might be. Or is it?

Dawkins suggests we might attempt to "devise a future democratic utopia in which only people deemed capable of good judgment vote, including children". I have made similar suggestions in the past, including potential voters having to pass a general political knowledge quiz before being allowed to vote. This seems to make some sense, although the details of how that would work are less clear. But it would remove any bias against people based on age, sex, or race, and replace it with limitations based on competence.

In fact, not only would it give people who currently cannot vote the chance to do so, but it would remove that right from those who currently have it but probably shouldn't. By that, I mean the people who are so ignorant of the world, and politics in particular, that they really cannot answer a simple question like "who is the current minister of finance" or "in which city is the United Nations based" or "what purpose does the second vote in our MMP system have".

Now I do agree that these questions might be seen as being arbitrary, and that we might not be any better off with a system which involves asking them than we are with the current system. But I think there is a fundamental difference, because the questions don't specifically (and perhaps unfairly) target a particular group, or at least they shouldn't if they are created in a reasonably fair way.

Dawkins concludes his tweet with "I doubt it" when considering whether a better system could be devised, and he's probably right. But when New Zealanders first started voting in the 1800s did they ever think that right would ever be extended to women? And did anyone think that the big parties who did well under the old first past the post system would allow MMP to be used instead? Changes can happen and sometimes even changes which seem unlikely at first, can happen.

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