Ed Miliband promised that a Labour government would extend the franchise to 16 and 17 year-olds within one year of the general election. The Conservatives, meanwhile, oppose lowering the voting age. In this article, and following on the heels of our recent podcast on the issue, Bart Cammaerts, Michael Bruter, Shaku Banaji, Sarah Harrison and Nick Anstead summarise research they conducted regarding the voting age. They argue that a set of accompanying measures needs to be taken for this to happen, in particular detailed and thought-provoking political and civic education throughout the school-system allowing for debates on key political issues is an absolute requirement.
About two years ago a team of LSE researchers conducted a large research project on youth participation for the European Commission (see the final report). Part of their remit was investigating the desirability of lowering the voting age to 16. These were their findings:
Until the 1970s, the voting age in most European countries was typically 21. However, during this decade, moves were made in most countries to lower the age when young people could vote to 18. More recently, many countries have considered lowering the voting age to 16, with Austria being the one European Union country to have enacted legislation in this area (internationally, this puts Austria in a similar position to countries such as Brazil and Nicaragua, which also allow voting at 16). In Germany 16-18 year-olds can also vote, but only in local elections. The Scottish government has piloted the extension of voting rights to 16-17yo for the election of Health Boards and Community Councils. The Scottish government also gave 16 and 17yo the right to vote in the recent referendum on Scottish independence, which engendered some criticism as 16 and 17yo were more likely to vote in favour of independence.
A number of arguments have been made in favour of lowering the voting age, including that the enhanced responsibility will combat apathy by encouraging young people to develop their civic skills, and that a change in the voting age would end legal discrepancies, such as the right (in some European countries at least) of young people to get married or join the armed services before they can vote. Counter-arguments have also been made against this position, for example that the vast majority of 16 and 17yo remain financial dependents rather than self-sufficient, and that the very principle of an age of consent requires a cut-off point of some kind, and that this undermines claims made by some pro-campaigners that the situation of young people is analogous to other groups in society – such as women – who have previously been disenfranchised.
In our research project, the question about the possibility of lowering the voting age was answered by a mixture of keen interest and caution. Almost all participants from our focus groups across 6 EU countries with young people and the stakeholder interviews we conducted with youth workers, youth representatives and young politicians emphasised that voting at 16 is not going to magically change the participation of young people in elections.
A set of accompanying measures needs to be taken for this to happen. Detailed and thought-provoking political and civic education throughout the school-system allowing for debates on key political issues is an absolute requirement in this regard. Furthermore, young people also need positive experiences of engaging with politicians, many of whom are now regarded as having no connection to young people or to real issues of poverty, lack of housing and lack of employment which young people are faced with.
Moreover, more than half of the interviewees and several of the youth in focus groups expressed an anxiety that if the voting age is lowered to 16, but there is no better deal for young people in society that comes with this, nor proper political education in place, the gains of this measure will go to Far Right parties who seem to be receiving a larger section of the youth vote proportionally. Confirming this fear with voters aged 17-24, our own research indicated that some of the young people who are in excluded groups but from Caucasian backgrounds voted for or talked about voting for Far Right candidates – in particular in France, Hungary and Austria.
It would be fair to conclude that the position of stakeholders as well as young people themselves on lowering the voting age to 16 is varied. Examples of enthusiastic arguments were as such:
“I worked before at the youth department and I saw 16 year olds there who make much much more sense than some of the members of the parliament. […] they take care of their siblings, they work already, they need to choose the right high school; if you give them more responsibilities, why not give them more power to participate? (Stakeholder interview, Finland, 2012)
Focus groups often echoed these positive sentiments when asked whether young people from 16 onwards should receive the right to vote:
“It will increase democracy in society. I want to ask the question back ‘why not?’ I think it should be natural.” (Focus group, Finland, 2012)
In Austria, the only EU country where 16 and 17yo can already vote in general elections, a representative from the Austrian Nation Students Union told us that: ‘it is important that voting at 16 is possible, that it is possible for young people to participate in some way in democratic decisions. However, I think it’s too little to cast a vote once in four years.’ (Stakeholder Interview, Austria, 2012). He argued that since there is no serious political education at 13, 14 and 15 which accompanies the right to vote at 16, those who can and do cast their votes are not as ‘prepared’ as they should be. Also this particular concern was voiced in the focus groups:
“I think they shouldn’t [receive the right to vote] because people at that age they don’t have enough information. I don’t think that two years will increase democracy. I don’t think 18 years olds vote so eagerly, so why should 16 years old vote so? I think they are too young.” (Focus group, Finland, 2012)
Additional examples of more cautious attitudes had to do with the risk that young people could be choice prey for extremist parties as exemplified by the academic expert on Youth and Participation in Austria who told us:
“We can say from experience, that more than 50 % of young voters chose right-wing parties, which was quite shocking. […] This leads to the conclusion that the voting age shouldn’t be lowered without enhancing political education in schools. Also, it should not only be about teaching institutional politics, but also involve discussing daily politics. […] One cannot talk about a general disenchantment with politics. However, there is certain political apathy discernable in connection with national politics. Young people and their problems aren’t taken seriously, because they are only a marginal voting group.” (Stakeholder interview, Austria, 2012)
Despite these concerns, there is ample evidence that supports lowering the voting age to 16. In related research, two of our team members – Michael Bruter and Sarah Harrison – found that the positive effects go beyond the demands of young people themselves and stakeholders. Indeed, people aged 16-18 vote more than older youngsters because they are more likely to live at home, and more likely to be in the school system, two factors that allow for greater support into participation, especially in conjunction with the accompanying measures we are recommending. Moreover, this research – based both on experimental data and real elections where 16-18 year olds could vote – shows that if young people participate in one of the first two elections in their lives, they become eager democratic participants while those who do not are more likely to become chronic abstentionists. A lower voting age accompanied by the right measures thus becomes a long term democratic investment of potentially tremendous value.
As such, it seems to us that lowering the voting age to 16 could potentially constitute an excellent way to encourage young people to engage with politics and democracy at a younger age, when they are extremely curious about ‘what it feels like’ to vote and are still in a school setting. However, as pointed out above there are important conditions that need to be met before this is implemented and these have to do with educative actions such as robust political and civic education in schools before the age of 16 as well as the organisation of school debates with politicians, but also a genuine commitment that the concerns of young people will be taken seriously and acted upon. If these conditions are not met, however, politicians could very well create more frustration amongst young people vis-à-vis democracy, as well as drive them into the welcoming hands of the far right.
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. Featured image credit:
Bart Cammaerts is Associate Professor and Director of PhD Programme in the Media and Communications Department at the London School of Economics.
Michael Bruter is Professor of Political Science and European Politics at the LSE.
Sarah Harrison is Research Officer in the Department of Government at the LSE.
Nick Anstead is Assistant Professor in the Media and Comunications Department at the LSE.