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