Across Europe, there is gathering momentum behind the idea of lowering the voting age. Austria has extended the franchise in all elections to 16- and 17-year-olds, as have 16 German states, while Denmark and the UK are considering doing the same. In 2015, the European Parliament endorsed a report calling for the voting age for European elections to be set at 16.
In Ireland, governments have been more hesitant. The current programme for government commits only to "examine" the Scottish experience of reducing the voting age to 17, "in order to draw conclusions". Nonetheless, it now seems only a matter of time before this overdue change is made. The Children's Rights Alliance yesterday called for such a move, echoing a long-standing position of the National Youth Council.
As the latter points out, enabling 16- and 17-year-olds to vote would help to get young people involved in politics – and form the habit of voting – earlier. Any voting age is arbitrary enough, but a 16-year-old can leave school, seek a full-time job and be liable for tax, yet voting is deemed somehow beyond his or her competence. It seems perverse to exclude so many engaged young people at a time when the most important political issue of the age – climate action – is one that will affect them so directly.
One of the arguments against extending the franchise is that younger people will vote for poor candidates. That is the voter’s prerogative – one that older voters exercise all the time – and in fact the international evidence suggests 16- and 17-year-olds vote in a broadly similar way to their older peers.
The Citizens’ Assembly in 2018 voted by 80 per cent in favour of reducing the voting age. A referendum would be required to change the minimum age for general and presidential elections as well as for referendums, but the Government could simply enact new legislation to bring in the change for local and European elections. It should be done in time for the 2024 local elections.