Ciar McCormick | Staff Writer
It has been decided that by the end of 2015 there will be a referendum in Ireland regarding lowering the voting age from 18 years of age to 16. The National Youth Council of Ireland (NYCI) is in support of the proposed reduction in voting age.
There are several reasons for the proposed reduction of voting age. The most persuasive of which I believe is that it will put youth issues on the political agenda. The NYCI suggests that “the involvement of more young people in Irish politics would … ensure issues affecting young people specifically would gain more prominence in the political arena because the people affected by those issues would be able to exercise their franchise to influence the policymaking process”. If the population between 16 and 18 years of age were added to the electorate, this youth block alone would account for 3.1% of the voting electorate (based on the population figures from the Census taken in 2011). This is a proportionately large amount of the electorate considering it only involves an age range of two years.
Another such reason is a demographic factor Ireland is facing; like the rest of Europe, Ireland is experiencing an aging population. If measures such as reducing the voter age to 16 are not implemented to actively engage young people in the political system at an earlier age, the consequence is that democracy will be threatened by the emergence of a Government and political representatives elected by a minority who are unrepresented. This is an overwhelming argument that such a demographic factor would have profound implications for future generations and would result in the emergence of a State which is not accountable to the majority of its citizens.
Sixteen is a common age for young people to gain many rights. At the age of 16 youths are given the right to leave school and seek full-time employment, while at the same time becoming liable for tax. It is also the age citizens are allowed obtain a licence to drive a tractor and may also sit their driver theory test in preparation for obtaining a full driver’s licence at the age of 17. If this youth block can be trusted with these civic responsibilities, why then can they not be entrusted with the civic responsibility of voting?
Another argument put forward by the NCYI is to remain consistent with the growing consensus of the matter. They advocate that Austria has lowered the voting age for all elections to 16. Seven of the sixteen states in Germany have lowered the voting age and a region in Switzerland has introduced it. Further they argue other countries such as the UK and Denmark are also considering such a move.
The UK seems to be the most active on this matter with the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey introducing the right to vote at 16. Further to this it has also been announced that the referendum in Scotland on Scottish Independence in 2014 will have a “key difference from normal voting arrangements [in] that the minimum age for voting in the referendum will be 16 instead of 18.”
Furthermore, the NYCI suggests there are proposals by the EU Parliament to allow young people across the EU to vote in EU Parliamentary elections at the age of 16 and 17 years. Outside Europe other countries have lowered their voting age to 16: Cuba, Nicaragua in 1984, Brazil in 1988, Ecuador in 2008 and most recently Argentina on the 1 November 2012. Written and aggregated, these statistics may put forward a popular change among countries, but it is still an unavoidable fact that 18 is the most common voting age around the world with over 173 member states having this voting age.
It is well known that one of the goals of lowering the voting age is to create a greater interest in voting and participating in society from a young age. Although The NYCI suggest subjects like C.S.P.E. (Civic, Social and Political Education) taught at secondary school level will educate young people, will this be sufficient to create informed youths? It was Gore Vidal who said “fifty percent of people won’t vote and fifty percent don’t read newspapers. I hope it’s the same fifty percent”. We are putting trust in young people to be informed on issues if they are to vote.
Maybe the question of an informed electorate is the least of our worries but rather the question of whether these potential young voters will vote at all? With an influential character such as Russell Brand spreading the word that he doesn’t “vote because to [him] it seems like a tacit act of compliance”; and instead advocating some kind of revolution. Could this sway young voters to join the growing trend in apathy towards voting? The decline in voter participation in recent years has been well documented as a growing trend in Ireland and across Europe. In a study on voting behaviour by Richard G. Niemi and Herbert F. Weisberg they reported: “Over the last 40 years, voter turnout has been steadily declining in the established democracies.”
The NYCI has provided some recommendations on the matter of low voting numbers. One of the more appealing ideas set out by the NYCI is a Government initiative to implement a Taskforce on Active Citizenship to establish an Independent Electoral Commission to oversee voter registration, voter education and the electoral process. Another suggestion made by the NYCI was to get the Government to move towards automatic registration of young people when they reach the age at which they are entitled to vote which held a lot of weight with me as a young person eligible to vote but presently unregistered.
Whether these recommendations are implemented or not, I see no problem with lowering the voting age to 16 years. Regardless of the age of the voter the wise words of Theodore Roosevelt are still applicable: “a vote is like a rifle; its usefulness depends upon the character of the user.”