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Too Young for Politics? Europe, the Referendum and the Legal Voting Age

, by Anna Wilson

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Thursday’s Parliamentary debate on amending the referendum bill to extend the vote to 16 year-olds has raised questions about the UK’s democratic system, and those of its European neighbours.

“Fight for your Europe” © Jeunes Européens Isère

authors

  • Studies history and politics at the University of Warwick. Member of the Young European Movement and currently doing erasmus at at the University of Vienna.

Day two of the Commons Committee’s debates on the EU referendum bill saw a heavy focus on the extension of the franchise to include those aged 16 on the date of the referendum (see Amendment 51). References were made to the recent referendum on Scottish independence, in which the right was given to 16 year-olds and resulted in an unprecedented high turnout of young voters. But how does this compare to the rest of Europe? And what are the implications for democracy in general?

As the only EU country with a 16+ franchise, Austria is leading the way with encouraging young voters. But what benefits has this offered the country? And since democracy is the cornerstone of the idea of Europe itself, how does the exclusion of young people endanger our core value?

Political Participation

Despite arguments from opponents that young people are neither mature nor politically aware enough to be able to vote, since the law was changed in 2007, Austrian election statistics have shown that 16 and 17 year-olds have a much higher voter turnout than older generations. As well as this, trials in the 2011 Norwegian local elections showed a similar trend.

Here, the UK could learn a lot. Participation in British general elections has been falling (from 83.9% in 1950 to 66.1% this year), and local elections rarely galvanise more than 30% of the electorate and the most recent European Parliament elections drawing just 35.6% of voters to the polling stations. Voter apathy is a concern for democracy – how can we have leaders who are accountable to the people if most people did not elect them in the first place?

Perhaps lowering the franchise could solve this: the 16+ Scottish referendum electorate had an 84.5% turnout, proving that young people are key to boosting democratic participation.

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Representation

Denying 16 year-olds the vote also calls into question whether political leaders actually have a right to exercise power over them. American colonists’ cries for “no taxation without representation” are still relevant for today’s teenagers without the vote. But rather than having to resort to revolution, Austrian youths now are represented.

In the UK, 16 year-olds are subjected to the same governments, laws and taxes as those with the vote… and yet they have no say in how these institutions are run. The issue of youth representation will be especially important in the EU referendum. It is predominantly young people who choose to make use of the EU’s free movement policy, often living, working and studying abroad. Without a vote to defend schemes like Erasmus+, the referendum risks reaching a decision which neglects the interests of a large portion of society.

Marginalising the opinions of youths is therefore a strong argument for following in Austrian footsteps and lowering the voting age to 16. Without paying attention to 16 year-olds, Britain – and the rest of Europe – risks compromising the value of its democracy.

Progress?

Finally, extending the franchise to include 16 year-olds would appear to be the next logical step in a long line of electoral reforms in Britain. Rather than being progress for the sake of progress, changes to the legal voting age would ensure that the UK’s system does not become outdated.

As people’s right to a voice in democratic proceedings has become more and more generally acknowledged, Parliament has changes its laws accordingly. The 1832 Great Reform Act, for instance, extended voting rights to those with a lower property qualification, as well as doing away with corrupt “rotten boroughs”. Women were not eligible to vote until 1918. Why, then, are proposals to lower the voting age by two years seen as so radical?

As our ideas on what it means to be democratic change, so should the franchise.

Conclusion

Excluding excluding 16 year-olds from the EU referendum vote is an undemocratic remnant of outdated ideas of who is competent to act politically.

As is seen with the Austrian and Norwegian examples, giving 16 year-olds the vote may be the cure for the Europe-wide plummeting voter turnout. The enthusiasm exhibited by teenagers can counter the apathy that is sweeping the continent and restore some of the democratic value that props up the EU.

Extending the franchise would also remedy the democratic deficit found in European countries which subject their young citizens to rules and taxation without giving them the opportunity to have input into how such systems are conducted. Here, again, the legitimacy of these countries claims to democracy are at stake.

Finally, by failing to revise the voting age, Britain and the other EU member states are exhibiting a reluctance to progress. Although not a problem in itself, the fact that evidence of the successes of 16+ franchises has been demonstrated and continues to be ignores shows a reluctance of governments to improve their democracies. It is important, then, that we learn from the examples already demonstrated in Europe and afford the vote to 16 year-olds, not just for the EU referendum, but also for future elections. This is vital if Europe wishes to justify its claims to being a legitimate, democratic institution which works for all its citizens.

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