Lowering the voting age to 16: a way of increasing young people’s democratic participation?

In 2007, Austria was the first country in Europe to lower the voting age for all elections from 18 to 16. Out of a concern to improve active participation by young people in political life, the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe held a debate on 27 March 2014 to assess the advantages and disadvantages of this measure, which is still an extremely controversial subject among its members.

The Deputy Head of the Department of Electoral Affairs of the Austrian Ministry of the Interior, Gregor Wenda, said that it was an Austrian region, Burgenland, which had been the first, in 2002, to grant the right to vote in local and regional elections to young people of 16. Five years later, the measure had been extended to the whole of Austria and to all types of election and in 2008 young people of 16 and 17 had taken part for the first time in the federal parliamentary elections. They had shown a keen interest in these elections, although this had worn off by the time of the following parliamentary elections, in 2013. 16 and 17 year olds were more motivated by local elections.

Voting early means voting for a long time!

The former member of the Council of Europe Advisory Council on Youth, Thomas Leys, gave sixteen good reasons to grant the right to vote to young people from the age of 16, the most important being the right of participation by all in democratic life but also the fact that such young people are more mature and better informed than in the past. “In most countries, they have the right to marry and found a family but they are also criminally responsible, pay taxes if they work and may be enrolled in the army. Why then should they not have the right to vote?”, he asked, pointing out that young people were no more receptive to extremism and populism than older voters. Furthermore, since the population was ageing, increasing the number of young people voting would help to restore the balance and prevent older people from dominating on polling days. Lastly, it appeared that the younger people were when they started to vote, the less likely they were to lose interest in elections later on.

However, there was far from unanimous agreement on the subject among the Congress members. Mikhaïl Gulevskiy (Russia, ILDG) considered that young people of 16 were “too immature” and preferred to introduce them to politics by means of youth councils and contacts with elected representatives, pointing out that some Russian leaders even argued in favour of raising the voting age. Jolanta Barska (Poland, NI-NR) said that she was “very sceptical” about the idea and thought that the main effect of lowering the voting age would be to increase the abstention rate. Charikleia Ousoultzoglou (Greece, SOC) said that young people had other concerns, the main ones being unemployment and poverty.

Voting at 16 – Bremen and Glarus as well

In contrast, Manuela Mahnke (Germany, SOC), who is an elected representative of the City and Land of Bremen, pointed out that in 2009, Bremen became the first German Land to grant the right to vote in local and regional elections to 16 and 17 year olds. Young people had taken considerable advantage of the right and had turned out in large numbers without being tempted by extremism. “It is in our interest to get young people involved in politics at a very early age and the voting age should be lowered throughout the country”, she argued. Currently, besides Austria and Bremen, only the Swiss Canton of Glarus had extended the right to vote to 16 and 17 year olds in local elections. Experiments had been carried out in Norway and Malta, which were also considering lowering the age to 16.

Following the debate, responding to the Congress members’ comments, Thomas Leys noted that the arguments of those who opposed the right to vote at 16, particularly those relating to “maturity” and the capacity of young people to vote were the same as those that had once been used to maintain the voting age at a much higher age, of 21 or even 25, or even to withhold it from women whereas, once the right had been extended, there had been no more criticism or discussion on the subject.



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