At 16 you can leave school, work, pay tax - why not vote?

Sat, Feb 2, 2013, 00:00

The Convention on the Constitution wants us to lower the voting age to 16. Is it a good idea?

The passing of a motion at last weekend’s Convention on the Constitution to reduce the voting age from 18 to 16 could make a small but significant change to Irish politics. The Government has established the convention to review and make recommendations on certain aspects of the Constitution.

If Ireland chooses to lower the voting age it will become one of a small number of places in Europe to do so. Within the past 10 years, Austria, the Isle of Man, Guernsey and Jersey have all granted their citizens the right to vote at 16. Germany and Switzerland offer limited voting rights to under-18s, and a lower voting age has also been mooted in Scotland and Wales.

In Ireland the National Youth Council has campaigned for years for a lower voting age. The 2011 census recorded more than 110,000 16- and 17-year-olds living in the State, and the council believes they’re entitled to have a say in electoral politics.

“If a 16-year-old can leave school, seek full-time employment and pay tax, why can we not vote and have a say in issues that affect us?” said Ciara O’Donoghue of the Vote@16 campaign last weekend.Some academics and campaigners also claim a broader franchise would help solve the problem of low turnout among young voters.

“There are political scientists who would argue that . . . if you start the voting age at 16 you’re catching young voters for their first election when they’re still at home, still at school, with a greater possibility to be socialised into the democratic movement,” says David Farrell, head of University College Dublin’s school of politics and academic consultant to the constitutional convention.

The argument, says Farrell, is that, by 18, people have moved away from home or started a career, and they’re less likely to register to vote. “Their lives are far more preoccupied with getting themselves to the next stage of their development, and elections just don’t feature.”


Not everyone agrees with the proposal. An Ipsos MRBI poll for this newspaper in November found that 56 per cent of respondents opposed a lower voting age.

Charlie Flanagan, a Fine Gael TD, says Ireland lacks the second-level education to enable young people to make informed political choices. “Any such move would have to be accompanied with a comprehensive programme of civics, political leadership and democracy,” says Flanagan.

“I don’t believe the answer to lower voter turnout is to broaden the base by lowering the age . . . If we are going to lower the voting age then I believe we have to look at how we engage people . . . Granting the vote in the absence of such engagement is a recipe for more of the same lower turnout.”

Farrell agrees that “if you’re going to go down the road of reducing the voting age you should be looking also at the education system at the same time”.The Sinn Féin senator Kathryn Reilly – at 24, the youngest member of the Oireachtas – disagrees. She says 16- and 17-year-olds are perfectly capable of making astute voting decisions. She says it could take years for a civic and political module to reach schools.

“I don’t think that we can wait for it to happen. At 16 young people are making a lot of informed choices,” says Reilly. “And whatever people say, there’s no such thing as a wrong vote. If you vote for a party, vote for a person, you’re making a decision based on however you inform yourself. Just because you’re 16 doesn’t mean you’re going to make a [worse] decision than someone who is 35 or 36.”

International experience seems to bear Reilly out. Jersey lowered the voting age to 16, in 2008, and “the vandals aren’t at the door yet, the Visigoths aren’t knocking on parliament,” says Eric Blakeley, news editor with ITV Channel Television. “It’s just more democratic.”In 2005, Austria introduced voting for 16- and 17-year-olds for municipal elections, before rolling it out for general elections in 2007. Dr Sylvia Kritzinger, head of the department of methods in the social sciences at the University of Vienna, recalls “a lot of controversy and a lot of criticism” at the time, with people saying younger voters “would not be mature enough and that young people would not know who to vote for”.

But recent research suggests “the optimists were right”, she says. Younger voters who were still at school and still living with their parents had a stronger interest and better engagement with politics than voters in their late teens and early 20s.

Enfranchising a younger cohort did not shift the political landscape in Austria, but it forced politicians to take stock and adapt their election campaigns to a younger audience.

“There was an active approach from political parties towards the youngest voters,” Kritzinger says. “They initiated a lot of projects for younger voters in schools, they went to visit them, they informed them about policy positions.”And the lower age obliged schools to educate their pupils about elections and democracy. Ultimately, she says, the change benefited the country.

Farrell says it’s difficult to know whether a lower voting age would have a major effect on Irish politics. Polling shows young Irish voters tend to gravitate towards left-wing candidates, so “at least in the short term you might see a greater impact in votes for independents or votes for alternative parties . . . That’s possible, but it’s really hard to know.”

And is it likely to happen any time soon? The recommendation of the Convention on the Constitution will go to the Oireachtas for deliberation, with a formal response expected within two months. Eventually the matter could be put to the people.

“We’re committed to debating in a short period the issues that arise and the decisions of the convention,” says Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald. “I’m favourably disposed to [lowering the voting age] myself, because I see it as empowering young people.”

Yay or nay? Should the voting age be lowered?

Holly Casey, Lucan, 17:“It would be good if it’s reduced, but personally, I don’t really care about politics, so even if it was reduced I’m not sure if I’d be bothered to actually vote. I’m not sure how many people would be interested in voting at that age. If our awareness was brought up about it then sure. But I’m happy waiting until I’m a proper adult.”

Simon Odekunle, Lucan, 16:“Sixteen-year-olds should be allowed to vote because in a lot of other respects we’re treated like adults. We’re considered mature enough for those type of things, so why can’t we be considered to be mature enough to vote? I want to have my opinion heard . . . and if I did have the vote I would vote maturely.”

Fergus McArdle, Naas, 18:“I definitely think it shouldn’t be changed to 16 . . . People over 18 already don’t know what they’re voting for, and to give a decision like that to 16-year-olds is probably a bad idea. It probably should be increased to 21. [In school] we learned how the Irish political system was structured, but I didn’t really learn about the direction of any of the parties.”

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