On the occasion of almost every election, regardless of the country, numerous questions arise in the social debate. Most of the dilemmas obviously concern the candidates or parties that participate in a given election, but it is also worth paying attention to discussions on more formal issues.
There are many such dilemmas. Should intentional non-participation in elections be punished? Which electoral law is the best? Should it be possible to vote online? Finally, what should be the minimum age limit for active participation in elections? It is on this last aspect that we would like to focus, presenting the arguments for and against, as well as the current limit of the electoral age in the member states of the European Union and possible future directions of changes in this aspect.
What about the lowered voting age in the European Union?
First of all, it should be stressed that in the EU there is no top-down rule that determines at what age citizens can vote in elections. This decision is made by the authorities of the member states, even if it is an election to the European Parliament. Interestingly, in 2022, the European Parliament proposed a number of changes related to the so-called European elections, which would be adopted by EU member states. One of the proposals was the idea of lowering the voting age to 16. In practice, however, in most EU member states, you can still vote only after the age of 18 (at the latest on election day), and this is virtually regardless of which elections (parliamentary, presidential or European) we are talking about.
This does not mean, however, that there are no exceptions to the 18-year-old rule in the EU, and that there are more and more exceptions. Currently, 16- and 17-year-olds can vote in the European Parliament elections in Austria (since 2007!), Malta and Belgium. In national elections from the age of 17, you can vote in Greece. In 2022, the German authorities also pledged to reduce the voting rights to 16 years in the European elections.
However, as can be seen, the group of EU countries that have decided to lower the voting age is still not numerous. Still, it discusses allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote, they appear in almost every developed democracy and constantly arouse emotions. What are the most common arguments for and against lowering the voting age?
The main argument of the supporters of lowering the electoral law results from the very essence of democracy, i.e. giving power into the hands of citizens, and implicitly – the largest (and therefore the most representative) part of them. Of course, this cannot mean the complete abolition of the voting age, because a person develops gradually and cannot be expected to make decisions as a small child that could affect the whole country.
In the case of 16-year-olds, however, we often talk about people who are fully aware and involved in the social and political life in their country. A group repeatedly referred to in this context are climate activists, i.e. often 16- and 17-year-olds, actively involved in the fight against the climate crisis, which is potentially the biggest problem facing the modern world. If these people organize hundreds of actions, protests or collections and are aware of the climate threat to a much greater extent than many adults, why should they not be able to express their opinion in the form of voting in the elections?
The second argument stems from the very age of these people and the attempt to make the elections really represent different social groups and ages. Not a small number of EU countries are struggling with an ageing population – older people make up an increasing proportion of citizens, which also translates into elections. Allowing younger people to participate in elections would be a kind of equilibrium to this trend. It would also encourage politicians to focus their election promises on the future, not just the present, because it is today’s 16- and 17-year-olds who will struggle with the consequences of the choices that older people make for them today.
Another argument is related to voter turnout, which in many EU countries (unless voting is obligatory) can be quite average, so that key decisions are really made only by part (even if it is still the majority) of the society. Lowering the electoral age limit would be a signal that the government also cares about the voice of young people, which could encourage them to participate in the next elections and develop a kind of voting habit, positively affecting turnout.
People criticizing the idea of lowering the voting right to 16 years emphasize that it is not without reason that in virtually every country there is a specific age limit from which you can buy alcohol and cigarettes, drive a car or just participate in elections. Although, of course, people develop at different rates and it is difficult to set a clear limit of maturity, such key decisions as the choice of power in the country should be made by people aware of their choices and mature enough to understand their importance and possible consequences.
The issue of maturity also raises doubts whether such young people would not be too susceptible to manipulation by politicians, because without experience it is much easier to believe in someone’s promises, even if they are populist or simply unrealistic. Especially considering the scale of the presence of young people in social media, where fake news and unverified information are very common.
There is also a constant argument that young people are simply not interested in politics, so they would not want to go to the elections either. Some also explain that lowering the voting age to 16 in some countries would be formally difficult because it would involve changing the provisions in the constitution.
What does the future hold?
The above arguments of both sides show that it is difficult to find unambiguous solutions, and some hopes and fears simply cannot be reconciled. Certainly, all EU citizens should want elections to take place in the most democratic way possible and with the highest possible turnout. However, it is important to remember the need to maintain certain security barriers and prevent populism.
Thanks to numerous European projects, the possibility of freely crossing borders or ease of communication, more and more young people feel connected to the European Union and its common values.
Young people are a very important part of our society that should not be underestimated. Therefore, it can be expected that in the near or distant future decisions to lower the voting age to 16 will be taken by other countries, although of course the pace and scope of such changes is difficult to predict. However, it is worth remembering that such discussions (even if they are not easy) should unite us as a European society, not divide us. Regardless of age.
- Classroommagazines, “Debate: Should the Voting Age Be Lowered?”, https://classroommagazines.scholastic.com/election/civics-in-action/voting–should-the-voting-age-be-lowered.html
- Fair Vote, “Why should we lower the voting age to 16?”, https://fairvote.org/archives/why_should_we_lower_the_voting_age_to_16/
- European Youth Forum, “Vote at 16“, https://www.youthforum.org/topics/vote-at-16
- National Youth Rights Association, “Top Ten Reasons to Lower the Voting Age“, https://www.youthrights.org/issues/voting-age/top-ten-reasons-to-lower-the-voting-age/
- Electoral Reform Society, “Votes at 16“, https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/campaigns/votes-at-16/
- National Institutes of Health, “Voting at 16: Turnout and the quality of vote choice“, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4020373/