Before the 1970s, the legal voting age was 21 in almost every country in Europe. Very few countries had been willing to follow the example set by Czechoslovakia in 1946, when it had become the first country in the world to grant suffrage to 18-year-olds. Czechoslovakia would go on to suffer four decades of Communist dictatorship, so arguably it wouldn’t be until 1970 – when the UK and Germany lowered the voting age – that 18-year-old Europeans would reliably be able to exercise the vote.
Today, Austria is the only country in Europe that allows 16-year-olds to vote in national elections. However, the voting age has been lowered for local elections in many countries, and national debates are taking place on this issue across the EU. In future, will Austria be seen as a pioneer in the same way as Czechoslovakia in 1946?
As part of our Debating Europe Schools series, we’ve been taking questions from students from across Europe to policymakers and experts for them to answer. For today’s debate, we had questions sent in on the voting age from students from the Wielokulturowe Liceum Humanistyczne im. Jacka Kuronia, Poland.
Curious to know more about the voting age in Europe? We’ve put together some facts and figures in the infographic below (click for a bigger version).
Our first question comes from a student who wonders: Does the average 16-year-old have enough civic knowledge to vote?
To get a response, we took this question to Dr. Andrew Mycock, Reader in politics at University of Huddersfield. Dr. Mycock’s research focuses on issues of youth citizenship and government youth initiatives, so what did he think of the idea of lowering the voting age to 16?
Well, I have reservations about whether the voting age should be lowered to 16. It has been in places like Austria and Norway, and in some local elections, and I don’t think the sky will fall in if the voting age is lowered. And, in some ways, it’s not really a question about maturity, because maturity itself is very difficult to gauge. If it were just about maturity, then I know some 47-year-old men – like my good self! – who I’d question allowing to vote.
I think the bigger question is how does lowering the voting age affect the way we understand the relationship between youth and adulthood? Because, I think the big problem is that across Europe the age of responsibility has been pushed upwards over the last 20 years or so, and it seems slightly counter-intuitive to then lower the voting age to 16. The risk is that what we could create is a generation of second-class or two-tier citizens who don’t have the same rights as 18-year-old voters. So, I do think that votes at 16 will be introduced across Europe slowly but surely, but we need to take our time and think about the full ramifications of that change.
To get another perspective, we spoke to Konstantinos Kyranakis, President of the Youth of the European People’s Party (YEPP), the youth wing of the main centre-right political force in the European Parliament. What would he say?
We are having a big debate in my organisation, YEPP, about the vote at 16. I’m personally very much in favour of lowering the voting age to 16, and I don’t think we should consider people under 16 as being ‘less capable’ of voting. The level of civic knowledge a citizen is very subjective, but I think that as technology and education advances, the amount of knowledge available to 16-year-olds advances.
Today’s 16-year-olds have access to 10 times, or in some cases 100 times, as much information as their parents did at this age, so I think they can potentially have the civic knowledge they need to know what parties to vote for. Now, if they have the mental ability to take that knowledge and make such an important decision about their lives, this is a totally subjective thing and in a democracy I don’t think you can treat important matters with a point of view like that.
Finally, we had a question asking why we don’t consider raising the voting age, to “raise the knowledge of the voting base”. To get an answer, we took this question to Michael Bloss, spokeperson of the Federation of Young European Greens. Here’s what he had to say:
Should 16-year-olds be allowed to vote? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!