The minimum age that someone can vote in a public election is determined by law. In most countries across the world, that minimum is set at 18. But then again, in some places as well as in certain circumstances (like local elections), people as young as 16 could cast their vote.
The age at which an individual can vote has been a topic of interest for a number of years. For many governments across the world, people younger than the set minimum don’t have the capacity to decide on how to cast their vote.
Looking back at history though, the voting age was set at 21, and in some areas, even older than that. It was during the 1970s when several countries agreed on 18 being an appropriate age for someone to cast a vote. Today, most countries do have 18 years as their minimum required voting age, but there have been debates about lowering that even further to 16 years.
A Brief History of Lowering the Voting Age
Almost all countries had their minimum voting age set at 21 before World War II. In 1946, Czechoslovakia became the first to reduce the age limit to 18. By the 1970s, a number of countries – particularly those in Western Europe – dropped the minimum voting age to 18 with the United Kingdom kicked things off with The Representation of the People Act in 1969.
The United States of America will soon, with the lowering of voting ages as a response to increased student activism protesting the Vietnam War. Before that, the voting age was set at 21 across the country. An amendment was drafted to lower the voting age after the decision of the Supreme Court in Oregon vs. Mitchell which held that Congress can establish a voting age for federal elections, but not for state or local elections.
A proposal to include citizens aged 18 and older in the right to vote was adopted by both houses of Congress and then send to the states for ratification. This – the 26th Amendment – became part of the Constitution on July 1, 1971.
Other countries to follow suit were Canada, Australia and France. Many others soon followed as well. As a result, 18 became the majority when it came to minimum voting age by the end of the 20th century.
To this day, there are still debates in certain countries on whether or not they should lower the voting age to 18. In Japan, for instance, the minimum voting age is 20. However, The Diet passed a revision to the Public Offices Election Law to lower the voting age from 20 to 18 on June 17, 2015. An editorial in The Asahi Shimbun had this to say: “We welcome this important and meaningful reform, which expands the scope of citizen participation in the political process and makes a larger population of younger people represented in politics.” The editorial continued, “But increasing the number of young voters alone will not change politics. The problem of political stagnation on this nation, as symbolized by low voter turnout, which was underscored by the unified local elections this spring, and a serious shortage of people seeking political careers, has become too serious to be overlooked.”
Put simply, the matter of lowering the voting age is a complicated issue that not only involves embracing a younger voting audience, but one with political issues as well. In short, there’s a whole lot to consider before a country can decide on whether or not they should lower the voting age.
List of Pros of Lowering the Voting Age
1. It gives young citizens an influential voice in decisions made by their governments.
As mentioned earlier, politics and government are taught in schools. Students listen as teachers – some with varying opinions at that – tell them about what has happened in the landscape of politics and government over the ages in their country. They also learn about what’s currently happening in the nation, as well as the decisions their government has been making.
Being filled with those ideas and information is shaping how these young students feel and think about the government and politics in their country. It might even open up discussions about the state of the nation and what could and should be done to solve the numerous issues it is facing. So whose not to say that young ones aren’t ready to make a stand?
While the case for being active in matters regarding politics and government is a slippery issue to discuss when it comes to teenagers, a case can also be made that not every voter within or above the minimum voting age make informed decisions. How can you truly tell that someone aged 50 years is better at making a decision than a 16-year-old? In terms of life experiences, sure. But in matters regarding politicians and their antics? It might be a good idea to listen to different sides of the story.
As stated in earlier parts of this article, Austria became the first country in the European Union to allow voters as young as 16 to cast their votes during the national elections. How have they fared?
A study into that expanded electorate revealed that 16- and 17-year olds were not less informed than those aged 18 nor are they less willing to participate in politics. Also, they could choose candidates based on who represented their own political beliefs just as well as older voters. Those conclusions from the study alone clearly negates the common argument against lowering the voting age: those below 18 years of age aren’t ready to cast their vote.
The study was published in the journal Electoral Studies, and the three Austrian researchers who conducted the study wrote that “Lowering the voting age does not appear to have a negative impact on input legitimacy and the quality of democratic decisions.” They added, “This means that the potential positive consequences of this reform merit particular consideration and should also be empirically studied.”
Another established democracy that lowered the voting age was Scotland, as mentioned earlier as well. Citizens as young as 16, were allowed to vote in the country’s historic referendum in early 2015. Since Scotland didn’t run exit polls, it’s hard to determine how many 16- to 17-year-olds actually voted, how they voted and whether or not that vote turned out to be decisive.
Writing in the Los Angeles Times, psychologist and adolescence expert Laurence Steinberg agrees that 16- and 17-year-olds are just as capable as those aged 18.
All this is best summed up by Hyattsville Council member Patrick Paschall: “We keep telling youth we want them involved in our city and government, and yet the message we send by denying them the right to vote is that their voice doesn’t matter.”
2. 18 Years Is an Arbitrary Age.
When the Vietnam War happened, citizens as young as 18 could be drafted into the armed forces where they could either sustain an injury or die. As such, it only seemed natural to allow people to vote at 18 (the limit was 21 at that time). Although the legal age of adulthood in America is 18, still setting a limit at that number seemed rather arbitrary. Why is that the case?
For one, age-related restrictions are pretty arbitrary. For instance, someone as young as 14 can work and pay taxes. As a member of the taxpaying public, don’t they have a say in how their state and country is run? Some states in the US allow citizens as young as 16 to drive cars. And as Phyllis Khan said back in 2007 on why she supports lowering the voting age: “If we trust them to drive at 16, why don’t we trust them to vote? An irresponsible driver can do much more harm than an irresponsible voter.”
3. It may increase the amount of voter turnout.
In the US, voters under the age of 30 are terrible when it comes to showing up on election day. However, there is belief that allowing those as young as 16 to vote can instill a lifelong love of voting.
Teenagers are given the right to drive a car. They can even work jobs after school or during the summer. They also interact with city police and pay taxes. For Paschall, granting these kids the right to vote before they leave their parents’ home can become “habit-forming” which is something that will have a long-term impact on their civic engagement.
The National Youth Rights Association, an advocacy organization, make mention of research showing that teens cast ballots more often, are more informed and even express views that are independent from those of their parents.
List of Cons of Lowering the Voting Age
1. Young citizens lack the maturity needed to cast a meaningful vote.
Apart from the startling trend that young people don’t show up to polls, some people argue that teenagers – especially those under 18 – don’t have the maturity needed to cast the right vote. And their argument for that is that their brains are still developing, plus their influence on turn-out is short-lived.
This can be debunked with what happened in Scotland during their historic referendum. Scotland allowed 16-year-olds to participate, and surveys showed that those under the age of 18 followed the debate more closely than adults. In an article in Salon, 17-year-old Sarah Buchan mentioned that she wasn’t interested in politics, but has now become hooked. Why is that? She credits tailored social media campaigns targeted at mobilizing younger voters with driving her to think, defend her views and change them.
2. Young people are easily swayed by what they hear and see.
In other words, they can’t think for themselves. A lot of those critical on lowering the voting age cite teens being swayed by the information spewed forth by external sources, which they can take as truth without bothering to question whether those hold true with their beliefs or not.
Basically, what is being argued is that younger teens need more time and experience to be able to navigate the political landscape, as well as formulate their own political ideology. In essence, forming their own opinion and not just borrowing from the political beliefs of their teachers or parents.
The Case of Voting As Young as 16 Years of Age
In the 1990s, some States of Germany moved to lower the minimum voting age to 16 for municipal elections. In 1995, Lower Saxony was the first state to make a reduction. Four other states soon followed suit.
Austria became the first member of the European Union to adopt a voting age of 16 for most purposes in 2007. With its 1988 constitution, Brazil lowered the minimum voting age from 18 to 16. In June 2015, the Scottish Parliament – on a unanimous vote – agreed to reduce the voting age to 16 for Scottish Parliament elections and Scottish local government elections.
In America, nineteen states allow 17-year-old citizens to vote in primary elections and caucuses as long as they turn 18 by election day. These states are:
- North Dakota
The City of Takoma Park in Maryland became the first place in the United States to lower the voting age to 16 for municipal elections and referendums in 2013.
Voting Ages Across the World
Although 18 years is the common minimum voting age in countries around the world, there are some who allow citizens younger than 18 to vote. Here’s a brief look:
17 Years Old
- East Timor
- North Korea
- South Sudan
16 Years Old
Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey – three self-governing British Crown Dependencies
Should the Voting Age Be Lowered?
There will always be two sides with regards to whether the voting age should truly be lowered. As it stands, most countries set the minimum age at 18 years, but with those younger than that becoming more involved in the happening’s of their respective countries, it is valid to question whether or not the current voting age should be lowered.
Of course, some would argue that 16 is too young and that most individuals at that age aren’t interested in politics and what’s happening in their country. But given that politics and government are required teaching in schools, people are wondering whether it’s the right time to allow these young individuals to have their say in how the country they live in should be run.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.