Letter to a first time voter


Dear Grace,

Congratulations on reaching 18. As far as the law is concerned, your mother and I are no longer your legal guardians, you can purchase alcohol, fireworks and buy a Lotto ticket and obtain your own credit card. You can now also vote for the first time. It strikes me that many young people are selective about which new rights they claim and show little interest in the right to vote. I find that sad, particularly when it is a consequence of apathy.

Your great grandfather Daniel and grandfather Owen put their lives at great risk to protect the right to political self-determination. They, along with many other New Zealanders, went overseas to fight for the democracy we have long enjoyed. The right to vote is at the heart of that democracy.  Some of them were, like you, just 18 years of age.

When he was your age, your Opa Gerhardus lived under a violent totalitarian regime that denied him many basic human rights including the right to vote, play sport, freedom of association, free speech, listen to a radio and access education – talk to him sometime about what that was like. Then, having come to New Zealand as an immigrant in 1955, he was denied the right to vote until 1978 when he was 52. His first vote was also my first vote!

Reflecting on history helps us recall the importance and privilege of exercising our democratic responsibilities. Your right to vote has been earned for you by your forbears and it bears the stain of blood spilled. When you vote you honour them and their commitment.

The issues we face today are many and can seem overwhelming: global warming, refugees, immigration, child poverty, family violence, growing inequality, support for beneficiaries, euthanasia, abortion, health-funding, racism, education, housing and prison reform, just to name some of the ‘neon-light’ issues. I hear you ask: “How can I possibly deal to all of these issues?”

It’s hard to summon the energy needed when we have not stood in the shoes of those who experience disadvantages.  But it is even harder for them. By comparison, you have had a privileged up-bringing and they need your help. As Edmund Burke said: “For evil to succeed, it only needs good people to do nothing.”

Continue to learn and think about those whose experience of life is different from yours, especially those who struggle for the basic things that you might not think twice about. In Catholic Social Teaching we refer to this as taking a ‘preferential option for the poor’, something grounded in the biblical tradition and exemplified in the life of Jesus. Study the party policies and reflect on how they either help or hinder those most disadvantaged. Cast your vote always with them in mind rather than your own well-being.

You enjoy the outdoors and feel strongly about the environment. You also care about other big life issues, including euthanasia and abortion. It gets confusing when, within parties, there are inconsistencies and even contradictions in their policies. Politics is complex and messy. Firstly, resist the temptation to see things as ‘black and white’. Secondly, within our current voting system, you get two votes; one for the party and one for the electorate. An approach I recommend is to cast your electoral vote for the candidate who will best represent your views on the issues on which there should be no compromise – often described in parliament as ‘conscience votes’ – and to give your party vote to the party you think has the better policies regarding the bigger-picture social issues which can allow, or even require, a bit of give and take.

Even then, it is likely you will find yourself having to make compromises by voting for a politician or party at odds with certain beliefs you hold dearly. In which case, remember that it is possible to influence MP’s thinking after the election through information and political lobbying. Not being able to vote for the ideal doesn’t necessarily mean compromising your beliefs or commitment to greater justice. In other words, see your ‘right’ to vote as being more like a ticket that gives you life-long entry to the stadium of political engagement rather than a one-off happening every three years – i.e.,  be an active voter.

Lastly, believe that your involvement in the political process, insignificant as it seems, can make a real difference. Pope Francis writes that we are “small, yet strong in the love of God”. I like that. He has also said that we are each called to watch over the world in which we live. As Catholics we stand for certain things, and we also need to stand-up for certain things. Voting and getting involved in political advocacy is an important way for you to live out your call to follow Jesus.

Grace, having turned 18, you are now being invited to play your part in making our country and the world a better and more just place … and I know you are ready to do that.

Your loving Dad

Dr John Kleinsman is the director of The Nathaniel Centre