Vote 2019: Is it time to reduce the voting age to 16?

A major group of Irish citizens had no vote in this week’s elections and referendum: children

When democracies get stuck, the way out has often involved enfranchising people who haven’t got the vote. It’s just over a century since women over the age of 30 with property of valued at more than £5 were given the right to vote. Working class men over the age of 21 were also allowed vote in the same election. Almost 50 years ago, 18-year-olds were allowed to vote in elections for the first time.

Today, motivated by concerns including declining turnout at elections and fewer young people voting, a growing number of countries are moving to lower their minimum voting age to 16.

Sixteen-year-olds have the right to leave school, drive a car and enter full-time employment, so why not include the right to vote?

Austria became the first EU country to reduce the voting age to 16 in 2007. In the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, the right to vote was extended to 16- and 17-year-olds for the first time. Just over a month ago, Malta voted to introduce a voting age of 16.

In all, about a dozen around the countries around the world – including Argentina, Brazil and Ecuador – now allow voting at 16.

The debate has also been gaining traction in Ireland over recent years, where a change in voting age would enfranchise an estimated 126,000 16- and 17-year-olds.

The National Youth Council of Ireland, which has led the campaign to lower the voting age, says such a move would catch up with fact that 16 is an age where teenagers currently gain important legal rights and responsibilities.

They have the right to leave school, drive a car and enter full-time employment (and pay taxes), so why not include the right to vote?

Another argument marshalled in favour of change is it would improve participation in politics and sustain a lifelong interest in democracy. Turnout among 16- and 17-year-olds was higher in the Scottish independence referendum than for some other age groups.

The Youth Council also maintains that young people are better informed, with access to web and courses such as civics and political education now part of the curriculum. Large-scale school strikes over climate change have added to a sense that younger people are ahead of the curve on an issue that threatens us all.

Those opposed to change, on the other hand, say younger people lack the maturity needed to make decisions on how we are governed. Noel Howard of Social Care Ireland, who has spent much of his career working with vulnerable young people, says teenagers would also be vulnerable to being exploited by political parties who will promise them.

In addition, he says we risk eroding childhood by placing the responsibility of voting onto the shoulders of younger age groups. “Under-18s aren’t allowed to drink alcohol or be named in court . . . are we going to change that too? I don’t think the average 16-year-old is engaged with these issues, and they need time to be children.”

Independent Senator Marie Louise O’Donnell has made similar soundings. She recently told a public gallery full of teenagers in the Oireachtas to “stay away from politics,” during a debate on the issue. “I would suggest you continue to get on with your education, your travel, arts, romance, music expression and sport.”

So what do young people think? And are they mature enough to take on the task of voting in a government? Eamonn Doran, a 16-year-old from Kilkenny, laughs at the “maturity” question. “At the moment, we have political leaders acting like children, and children acting like political leaders,” he says.

“Instead of facing up to problems like climate change, it’s being denied; meanwhile, young people are the ones taking a stand . . . yet these are the issues which will affect us the most.”

Saoi O’Connor, who is also 16, and from Skibbereen, in Co Cork, agrees. “Just look out onto the streets on any given Friday, wherever you are in the world, and you’ll see some of the hundreds of thousands of young people who are engaged with world issues and who have taken it on themselves to make their voices heard, whether we can vote or not,” she says.

“The politicians we elect this weekend will have a direct influence over whether or not my generation inherits a liveable planet, and we don’t get a say in who those politicians are.”

That fact that younger voters are less inclined to vote along party lines is another reason to lower the voting age, says Amielia McGovern (16) from Mullingar.

“If a politician comes to my door, I start asking them hard questions. Some of them are shocked . . . The politicians we elect this weekend will have a direct influence over whether or not my generation inherits a liveable planet . . . I think we bring a whole new perspective to the debate. We’re looking for honesty and integrity and won’t take anything else.”

Generational differences also means that issues like LGBT rights don’t get the air-time they deserve, says 14-year-old Caoimhe Cotter, from Cork. “Older generations were taught that being gay was a sin, but this is a generation which has been told that anything goes, as long as you don’t hurt yourself or anyone else. But that’s not reflected in politics,” she says.

Ultimately, says Gearóid O'Donovan, a 17-year-old from Dungarvan, in Co Waterford, the Government is reluctant to lower the voting age because it fears younger people won't support them. "They believe that young voters are left-wing voters and this doesn't suit the more centre-right policies of Fine Gael. But just because they can't attract the voters with their policies, it shouldn't stop extending voting rights to all 16- and 17-year-olds."

Scotland allowed 16- and 17 year-olds to vote on constitutional issues for the first time in the 2014 independence referendum . It has since extended this to include elections for the Scottish parliament.

The main arguments against the move at the time centred on low turnout among young people and limited public support for the move. However, Jan Eichhorn, a lecturer in social policy at the University of Edinburgh, says these arguments did not hold up to scrutiny in the independence referendum.

Turnout for 16-17 years olds was higher (75 per cent) for older age groups, such as 18-24 year olds (54 per cent). “Voting earlier, while still being in school and more likely to live at home, is likely to increase voter participation, not reduce it,” says Eichhorn.

Public support has also shifted significantly. About a third of the UK population supported lowering the voting age prior to the UK referendum. However, support has now nearly doubled with roughly 60 per cent of the Scottish population agreeing with the reduced voting age, according to data compiled by the UK’s Electoral Commission.

One of those who changed her mind is the leader of the Scottish Conservative Party, Ruth Davidson. She has said that her position changed to support an extension of the franchise after watching stadiums and theatres packed full of 16- and 17-year-old school students eager to get involved.

Research also indicates that the move to lower the voting age in Scotland has boosted levels of political engagement among young people. They are more likely to have joined a political party, signed a petition or taken part in a demonstration. In addition, younger people were more likely to have source information about politics from a wider number of sources than older people.

So is there much likelihood that the law will change in Ireland? When the issue was examined in 2013 by the Convention on the Constitution, the advisory group comprising 66 citizens and 33 parliamentarians, it voted by a small majority in favour of changing the Constitution to reduce the voting age to 16.

The then taoiseach, Enda Kenny, pledged to hold a referendum, though it slipped off the political agenda amid what were seen as more pressing concerns such as marriage equality and abortion.

In recent times the Sinn Féin Senator Fintan Warfield proposed extending voting rights to 16-year-olds for the local and European elections (which would not require a referendum) . It was ultimately defeated in the Seanad after failing to get the support of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael members. While both parties claimed they supported the spirit of the Bill, they said more time is needed to consider the full implications.

Dr Theresa Reidy, a political scientist at at UCC, feels it is likely that change will come eventually, given that our electoral system has been reformed to increase and widen participation over the past century or more.

“In the past, voting rights were often restricted on the basis of gender, wealth, race and status but suffrage campaigns sought to dismantle these discriminations,” says Dr Theresa Reidy, a political scientist at at UCC.

“These changes tend to happen in waves and, once it changes, the old arguments against changes tend to be quickly forgotten about.”

If the idea of reducing to voting age to 16 sounds radical, then consider what the head of politics at Cambridge University has suggested in recent months: extending the vote to six-year-olds.

While his suggestion has been widely criticised, Prof David Runciman insists that it would give a “jolt of energy” to our ailing democracy. He says the “the final frontier of enfranchisement is children” and has likened it to historical decisions to extend the vote to poorer people, women and ethnic minorities.

The ageing population, he says, means young people are now “massively outnumbered”. This, he has argued, is creating a democratic crisis and an in-built bias against governments that plan for the future.

Prof Runciman argues argues that fundamental reform is needed to an electoral system that “keeps producing results that actually people are increasingly unhappy with”. “What does change is that you get a new lease of life in democracy . . . It actually gives it a jolt of energy and makes it slightly unpredictable again.”

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent