In recent times, many countries in Europe have debated the possibility of lowering the legal voting age to 16. At the moment and within the framework of the EU, voting at 16 is only allowed in national elections in Austria since 2008, although it is allowed at different levels (local elections, referenda) in other countries like Estonia or Scotland.
Opinions about this issue can vary strongly from one person and country to another. Many think that lowering the voting age could have a very positive impact on youth in terms of engagement and improvement of political knowledge and involvement. As we can see from a small poll carried out by the European Youth Forum (EYF), the vast majority of young people who voted would be in favour of lowering the voting age. This may be a popular trend among the political ‘youth circles’, but it’s not, by far, the shared opinion among ordinary youth. This past year, I have lived in Austria and I have had the chance to ask the locals what they think about voting at 16, considering the situation in their country. To my surprise, most of them replied that it’s a mistake to allow young people to vote at 16: “You haven’t got a clue about politics when you’re 16”, says one of them.
With regard to my country, Spain, the issue of lowering the voting age hasn’t triggered a much politicised debate. After some research, I found out that PSOE (the Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party) and IU (United Left) proposed a lowering of the voting age at the end of 2011. This proposal, however, has had no consequences or impact on our society, at least not among the younger generation.
Within PSOE, it was believed that anticipating the age when young people can vote would increase their participation in politics; IU used the same argument, and advocated the voting age to coincide with the time when young people are allowed to decide on other activities, like working or their health issues.
However, there are many doubts about this, considering the widespread abstention among the Spanish youth, which could also lead to a decrease of election participation on average. The main reason for those who are against lowering the voting age is the ‘quality’ of the vote – or lack thereof. Youngsters under 18 normally have little or no interest in politics and don’t identify with any of the parties, and many argue that they are more likely to be won over by extreme groups, which could give rise to polarisation and the deterioration of a society’s democratic qualities.
I think lowering the voting age to 16 is not a good way to make young people automatically enthusiastic about politics and elections, if nothing else changes. The government and institutions should invest in involving the youngsters from the base: at schools or organisations, educating the youth politically, making them more aware of the current situation, showing them their value to the political landscape and motivating them to participate actively. During my whole education, until I turned 18 and moved out of my town to study at university, there was never an external motivation to be involved or interested in politics, almost no explanation about how the system works, and especially, how I could contribute to good changes, and that’s what, for today’s underage population, I think is missing too.