In 2007, Austria became the first European country to allow 16-year-olds to vote in every type of election. Since then, other countries such as Malta, Scotland, and Belgium have followed suit by allowing 16-year-olds to cast ballots. Even the World Economic Forum at Davos has supported letting people under 18 elect members of the European Parliament. This idea of allowing 16-year-olds to vote has sparked controversy, with some claiming that people of that age are too immature, both neurologically and politically, to cast meaningful votes. On the contrary, some claim that lowering the voting age is not only appropriate, but also democratic. In this article, I will demonstrate that 16-year-olds should be allowed to participate in elections.
The first and most self-evident argument for lowering the voting age to 16 is that it would give young people more political representation. This, in turn, would enable issues that disproportionately affect teenagers to be raised. Good examples of this are the climate crisis and education policies. Even though the effects of climate change are already being felt, they are likely to get worse in the future, and hence will fall disproportionately on people who are teenagers today. According to the UNDP’s People’s Climate Vote, 70% of people under 18 around the world believed that climate change was a global emergency, compared to 58% of over 60s. Similarly, education policy disproportionately affects 16-17-year-olds, since most of them are still in school. Public school board members are typically elected, and it is absurd that the people who are affected the most by these decisions have no say in choosing them. This is particularly egregious in light of evidence suggesting that schools don’t always best serve students. Researchers asked over 20,000 American high schoolers to rate how they felt over the course of a school day. Shockingly, 60% of their time in school was spent experiencing negative emotions with around 80% feeling stressed and 70% feeling bored. Given that 16-17-year-olds have unique stakes in political decisions, it makes sense to allow them to vote if they are willing and able to.
Opponents of the idea may question the willingness of young people to make informed political decisions. According to these critics, 16-17-year-olds are politically disengaged and wouldn’t know what to do with a ballot even if they had one. When surveyed, only 32% of Dutch young people (ages 15-17) reported being interested in politics compared to over half of those older than 55. However, it’s undeniable that not all teenagers are disengaged. In the case of Greta Thunberg, a Swedish environmental activist, she was named Times’ ‘Person of the Year’ for her climate change activism at only 16 years old. While the vast majority of teenagers are not major political movement leaders at that age, nearly one in every three teens care about politics, sometimes very deeply. For this reason, it isn’t fair to deny these young people the vote just because some of their classmates will decide not to use it.
Secondly, the idea that 16-17-year-olds are significantly less engaged than other age groups can be questioned. The evidence from Austria shows that although 16-17-year-olds turned out to vote significantly less than those aged 30 and over, they actually voted more frequently than 18-21-year-olds. This suggests that although they are less engaged than the average citizen, they can be more engaged than other age groups currently allowed to vote. It therefore doesn’t make sense to deny them the vote solely on the basis of low engagement. Furthermore, the fact that 16-year-olds tend to vote more than 18 year olds can be used to boost lifelong democratic participation. Research has found that higher base turnout for 16-17-year-old first time voters leads to multiplier effects which increase future turnout compared to 18-year-old first time voters.
Another argument against lowering the minimum voting age is that teenagers lack sufficient political maturity or knowledge to cast a vote that truly reflects their preferences. The idea is that even if some teenagers have defined ideological positions and are engaged enough to vote, they don’t know enough about politics to cast a vote that accurately reflects their beliefs. Research shows this is false. A study was conducted in Ghent, Belgium in 2018 to test whether 16-17-year-olds could cast ideologically congruent votes. A mock election was held and 16-17 year olds were invited to participate. The researchers then compared the ideological positions of participants with the ideological positions of the party they voted for. A congruent vote occurs when the chosen party’s positions align most closely with that of the participant. The researchers found that there was no difference between young people’s ability to cast a congruent vote and their parents’ ability to do so. Therefore, the argument that 16-17-year-olds lack the political maturity and knowledge to vote meaningfully is demonstrably untrue.
Despite this evidence, it could be argued that 16-year-olds should still not be allowed to vote because they could be more easily swayed. The parts of the brain which regulate emotions, identify and manage peer pressure and inhibit impulses are not fully developed until the age of 25. It’s not a stretch to say that this could affect 16-year-olds ability to make unswayed political decisions, particularly as peer pressure has been found to play a role in voting. However, there is no research showing that this effect is significant, and this argument remains theoretical rather than empirically proven.
In conclusion, the minimum voting age should be lowered to 16. It’s important to remember that voting is a right, not a privilege. There is no concrete evidence to support the idea that 16-year-olds are too politically, socially, or neurologically immature to vote meaningfully. On the other hand, there is evidence suggesting that they are mature enough. Given this, it is undemocratic to deny 16-17-year-olds the vote, just as it would be undemocratic to deny any other group the vote when there is no evidence that they are incapable of it. Lowering the voting age to 16 is not only reasonable but crucial.
Featured image by: CBC