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Electoral Insight – Youth Participation in Elections

Electoral Insight – July 2003

Lowering the Voting Age: European Debates and Experiences

Lowering the Voting Age: European Debates and Experiences

Kees Aarts
University of Twente, The Netherlands

Charlotte van Hees
Dutch Centre for Political Participation, The Netherlands

Democracy grows on contradictions, and one of these is about the question of who exactly belongs to the demos. On the one hand, general suffrage is seen as a defining characteristic of democracy; on the other hand, suffrage never extends to all those who are ruled. Drawing the lines is also known as the problem of inclusiveness.

Who should be excluded from taking part in elections? This is one of the toughest questions of democratic theory. The Austrian economist Schumpeter argued long ago that, precisely because there is no simple answer, "must we not leave it to every populus to define himself?" Footnote 1 This radical viewpoint is, however, not generally accepted. It is more common to try and pin down more or less universal criteria for inclusion. Such criteria are at first necessarily abstract: for example, a voter should be able to "reason" about politics, and to have political preferences.

Translated into political practice, it appears that a large variety of criteria are applied to make exclusion work. One of these is a minimum voting age. The argument is that, lacking better indicators, a minimum age is a proxy for civic maturity and, therefore, a qualification for full citizenship. Of course, this is a circular argument: full citizenship, in turn, determines the minimum age. But in political practice, the circularity is taken for granted. Footnote 2

Is there consensus on the minimum voting age?

The problem of inclusiveness is solved, in practice, by criteria that usually differ among countries. According to recent literature, there appear to be only two such criteria about which there is currently a global consensus. One of these is a minimum voting age of 18 years. Footnote 3

But is there really a consensus? If so, it is of a relatively recent date. The voting age has decreased steadily since the expansion of suffrage in the older democracies in the first decades of the 20th century. The Dutch case may serve as an example. At the time of the introduction of the modern Dutch electoral system, in 1917, the minimum voting age was 25. In 1946, it was lowered to 23 years. In 1965, 21-year-olds were granted the vote, and in 1972, 18-year-olds followed. It appears that similar developments occurred in many Western democracies.

Moreover, the apparent consensus is fragile. It holds at the moment, with few exceptions, Footnote 4 for elections of national assemblies and presidents. But it has been the subject of renewed debate in recent years in a variety of countries, and in some places the cracks are already visible, starting with the rules for local elections.

Although the issue is not making headlines yet, calls to lower the voting age to 16 are on the public agenda in several European countries. In Germany, 6 of the 16 states Footnote 5 have, in the past seven years, actually lowered the active voting age for local elections to 16. In other countries, voting at 16 has, so far, merely been debated.

There is a clear political dimension to lowering the voting age. All six German states mentioned above were governed at the time of the change by coalitions of Social Democrats (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschland) and Greens (Die Grόnen). Footnote 6 In most European countries, the issue has found some support from progressive left-wing and liberal parties. The Social Democrat leaders in France (Lionel Jospin of the Parti Socialist [PS]) and the Netherlands (Ad Melkert of the Partij van de Arbeid [PvdA]) endorsed the idea of lowering the voting age at some point in their 2002 election campaigns, although the issue did not make it into the formal party programs. In Britain and Flanders (Belgium) the issue has been put on the political agenda by the cabinet minister specifically responsible for youth affairs.

In Flanders the liberal VLD (Vlaamse Liberale Partij), the green Agalev (Anders Gaan Leven), and the progressive splinter Spirit (Sociaal-Progressief-Internationaal- Regionalistisch-Integraal-democratisch-Toekomstgericht) support the change. Footnote 7 The VLD, which is the second-largest party in Flanders, has linked the issue to its wish to abolish compulsory voting. There is no political majority for abolishing compulsory voting at present. Also, lowering the voting age for regional or federal elections requires a constitutional amendment, and therefore political support from the Walloon provinces. All this is still far away, but following the German example, changes at the local level might be within reach.


Westminster, home of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, in London.

In Britain, the Electoral Commission is now reviewing the minimum voting age and will report to Parliament at the beginning of 2004. The Electoral Commission is investigating the claim that lowering the voting age would help to re-engage young people in the political process, as well as the arguments for keeping it as it stands. In the meantime a large number of social and political organizations, including several parties, have initiated a campaign called "Votes at 16", aimed at influencing public opinion and encouraging MPs to actively support the measure. Footnote 8 Among the parties in favour are the Scottish and Welsh nationalist parties (Scottish National Party and Party of Wales), and the Liberal Democrats. The latter's party leader, Charles Kennedy, publicly advocated the measure in February 2002. Footnote 9 Individual Labour and Conservative politicians have also expressed support. At the local level, the Commission on Local Governance recently concluded in a major report on the future of local democracy Footnote 10 that the voting age should be reduced to 16.

Why voting at 16? And why not?

The motives of supporters and opponents of lowering the voting age are very similar in the various countries. Their arguments can roughly be divided into three categories: legal, political and educational.

Legal arguments

Legally, young people come of age when they turn 18. Disregarding minor legal differences among the European countries, this means that 18-year-olds can be held fully responsible for their actions, can stand trial in an adult court, can marry without parental consent and can start their own businesses. This is an argument against voting at 16. The counterargument is that many other legal rights and duties are granted at 16, such as joining the military, buying alcohol, leaving school and paying taxes. Supporters of voting at 16 have highlighted these inconsistencies affecting young people's rights and responsibilities at different ages. In some of the German states, e.g. Lower Saxony, it was the decisive argument for lowering the voting age at the local level.

The right to participate is implicitly granted in Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which all Western European countries support. Article 12 states that the right to express views freely in all matters affecting the child is given to every child who is capable of forming his or her views, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with his or her age and maturity. Although not literally a "right to participate" in matters affecting the child, it is often interpreted as such. Consequently, it can be argued that this treaty provides legal grounds for lowering the voting age.

Political arguments

Politicians and young people, it is often claimed, live in different worlds and speak different languages. Many politicians regard young people as objects of policy. Youth policies typically focus on the (relatively few) young people who show deviant behaviour. Not surprisingly, young people feel excluded from the democratic process. Footnote 11

It is argued that giving 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote will provide political parties with an incentive to make politics more interesting, and to speak and write in language that young people understand. Skeptics hold that politicians create the wish for voting rights, rather than respond to it. Politicians are attracted by the advantages of a new potential electorate. It is true that the supporters of voting at 16 are mainly found among left-wing, green, and liberal parties, which in Europe have a relatively young electorate.

Educational arguments

The two most frequently mentioned arguments against lowering the voting age are that it will have a negative effect on voter turnout, and that young people tend to vote for extremist parties. Both arguments build on the assumption that voting requires a civic maturity that is absent in the typical 16-year-old.

This reasoning has, however, also been reversed. The turnout rate among young people has always been relatively low, but lately it has been suggested that turnout no longer rises as younger generations age. Footnote 12 Young people are not attracted by election-related political activities, and increasing numbers remain uninterested when they grow older. Schizzerotto and Gasperoni describe this as a threat to democracy:

Limited political participation – voting, membership in political parties, in youth associations and organizations, and representation in decision-making bodies – is understood as a major youth problem in most Western European countries ... The declining political engagement and traditional societal participation among youth is perceived as a threat to the future of the representative democracy .... Footnote 13

Therefore, it is argued, youth must get involved in electoral politics at a younger age – and granting them the right to vote might help. Meanwhile, it is interesting that many young people, when asked in surveys for their opinion on lowering the voting age, oppose it. Footnote 14 They believe that they lack the political knowledge to vote. However, their support increases when they are asked if they think lowering the voting age to 16 would be a good idea if their political knowledge were improved. In Britain, since September 2002, civic education has been part of the national curriculum for secondary schools. The "Votes at 16" campaign used the launch of this subject to support its case.

What about voting for extreme, anti-system parties? Research in three German states that have recently lowered the voting age from 18 to 16 shows that these new voters do vote in different patterns than older voters; however a uniform trend is absent. Footnote 15 Electoral statistics from the 1999 local elections in North Rhine-Westphalia show that the Greens and the liberal FDP (Freie demokratische Partei) are more popular among young people, at the expense of the SPD and CDU (Christlich demokratische Union Deutschlands). But in the 1996 Lower Saxony local elections, surveys in the cities of Hannover and Braunschweig show that the CDU and Greens received more votes among the young. Finally, in the 1999 Saxony-Anhalt local elections, the differences in party preferences were hardly noticeable. It is important to note that in none of these states is there a strong tendency among the young to vote for parties of the extreme left or right.

What can we learn from research?

Traditionally, voting is regarded as a more or less purposeful vehicle for expressing political preferences, which is more easily used by those people who have the relevant resources (notably education) at their disposal.

Although its importance for the individual decision to vote or not is unquestioned, this resource-oriented explanation alone accounts for only a small fraction of the decision to vote or not (typically less than 10 percent). In the search for better explanations, one variable also appeared to be uniformly relevant. This is the age of the voter. Research suggests that people become more inclined to vote when they grow older, but that the relationship reverses for the elderly. In addition to this life-cycle effect of age, a generational explanation of turnout has also often been suggested: younger generations vote less than older generations, even when they grow older.

Recent publications have highlighted other age-related factors in the explanation of turnout. Plutzer (2002) presents and tests a "developmental theory of turnout", which emphasizes the habitual nature of voting and the crucial role of childhood socialization into voting. Footnote 16 Whether first-time voters do actually cast a vote is, to a considerable extent, dependent on their parents' social and political resources; only later in life are these resources replaced by acquired habits.

This developmental approach to voting might fit well with the educational arguments for lowering the voting age that we referred to above. At age 16, most young persons still attend school. Civic education classes, which are commonly required before age 18, may support the socialization into voting habits – together with a competitive electoral contest. Footnote 17

The research in three German states on the turnout level of 16–18-year-olds lends some support to this hypothesis. In North Rhine-Westphalia, the turnout among 16–21-year-olds Footnote 18 was slightly below the average for the whole electorate, but clearly higher – by about 5 to 8 percent – than among those aged 21–30. Similar results hold for Lower Saxony, where 16–18-year-olds vote at a level comparable to 35–45-year-olds. Finally, a similar conclusion can be drawn for the 1999 local elections in Saxony-Anhalt.

If the developmental theory of turnout holds, these generations of 16–18-year-olds in Germany are more likely to acquire the habit of voting than their predecessors, who learned to vote only at age 18. This may be a good sign for the future of electoral democracy.

The future

Will other European countries follow the German example? Probably not in the short term. In most countries, lowering the voting age involves a change to the constitution, which cannot be accomplished quickly. Experiments at the local level are more easily developed, and this seems to be the feasible route in Flanders (Belgium) and Britain. Moreover, changing the rules of the political process is itself a political act. Thus, after the 1999 state election replaced the SPD-Greens coalition by a CDU-FDP majority, the Hesse state government renounced its 1998 decision to lower the voting age to 16. But whatever direction the reforms take, it is unlikely, just as it was in the 1970s, that they will be halted by national borders.

Notes

Footnote 1 Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (London: Allen & Unwin, 1943, 1976 ed.), p. 245.

Footnote 2 Robert A. Dahl, Democracy and Its Critics (New Haven: Yale U.P., 1989), p. 127.

Footnote 3 The other is the exclusion from voting rights of mentally deficient persons, see André Blais, Louis Massicotte, Antoine Yoshinaka, "Deciding Who Has the Right to Vote: A Comparative Analysis of Election Laws," Electoral Studies Vol. 20 (2001), pp. 41–62.

Footnote 4 The best-known exception is Brazil, with non-compulsory voting for 16–18-year-olds (for 18–70-year-olds, voting is compulsory). Several Asian countries have a minimum voting age higher than 18 – see Blais, Massicotte and Yoshinaka, "Deciding Who Has the Right to Vote".

Footnote 5 These six German states are: Hesse, Saxony-Anhalt, Schleswig-Holstein, Lower Saxony, North Rhine-Westphalia, Mecklenburg-West Pomerania.

Footnote 6 Manfred Schwarzmeier, "Kommunalwahl ab 16 Jahren: Mehr als nur ein Partizipationsplacebo?," BJR-Jugendnachrichten Januar/Februar (2002).

Footnote 7 Joël de Ceulaer, "Een verjongingskuur voor de stem," Knack Vol. 32 (November 27, 2002), pp. 20–25.

Footnote 8 See www.votesat16.org.uk.

Footnote 9 Kennedy's speech at Westminster Day, on February 5, 2002, reported by BBC News on BBCi, can be found at news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/ukpolitics/1801693.stm.

Footnote 10 Discussed in the briefing paper of the National Youth Agency, Spotlight Issue 11 (January 2003); Commission on Local Governance, Free to Differ: The Future for Local Democracy (Local Government Information Unit, 2002).

Footnote 11 Marije Cornelissen, 'De' jongere bestaat niet. Negatieve gevolgen van de beeldvorming over jongeren (Utrecht: Landelijk Bureau ter bestrijding van Rassendiscriminatie, 2000), p. 54; e.g. Children's Rights Alliance for England, The REAL Democratic Deficit: Why 16 and 17 Year-Olds Should Be Allowed to Vote (London: CRAE, 2000), p. 20.

Footnote 12 For an overview of arguments and evidence, see Mark N. Franklin, The Dynamics of Voter Turnout in Established Democracies since 1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).

Footnote 13 A. Schizzerotto and G. Gasperoni (supervisors), Study on the State of Young People and Youth Policy in Europe (Milan: IARD, 2001), pp. 1–17.

Footnote 14 Charlotte Van Hees and Heleen Snijders, Drank, Brommer en dus ook stemmen!: Een onderzoek naar de haalbaarheid en wenselijkheid van het stemrecht voor zestienjarigen (Amsterdam: Instituut voor Publiek en Politiek, 2002); for Britain, see also Spotlight, the National Youth Agency briefing paper, available at www.nya.org.uk/download-PDF/spotlight-5.pdf.

Footnote 15 The sources are: Statistisches Landesamt, Nordrhein-Westfalen; Statistisches Landesamt, Sachsen-Anhalt; Universität Hannover, Arbeitsgruppe Interdisziplinäre Sozialstrukturforschung.

Footnote 16 Eric Plutzer, "Becoming a Habitual Voter: Inertia, Resources and Growth in Young Adulthood," American Political Science Review Vol. 96 (2002), pp. 41–56.

Footnote 17 Franklin shows that the context of their first election can leave a "footprint" in the turnout levels of a generation of new voters for many years. Mark N. Franklin, "Electoral Competitiveness and Turnout: How Voters React to the Changing Character of Elections," paper presented at Joint Sessions of Workshops of the European Consortium for Political Research, Edinburgh, March 28 – April 3, 2003.

Footnote 18 The categorization of age results from administrative rules.


Note: 

The opinions expressed are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada.