When it comes to voting age, most countries seem to have agreed on a minimum age, often specified in their constitution. When democracies first awarded the right to vote, the voting age was generally set at 21 or higher. In the 1970s it changed to 18 in a number of countries starting with the UK and followed by the USA, Canada, Australia and France. Between the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century, a number of countries began to consider reducing the voting age to 16. The earliest move came when Brazil lowered it from 18 to 16 via its 1988 constitution. During the 1990s, some states in Germany did the same for municipal elections. In 2007, Austria became the first member of the European Union to adopt a voting age of 16 for all purposes. In 2013, the City of Takoma Park, Maryland became the first place in the US to allow 16 year olds to vote in municipal elections and referendums. Iran had been unique in awarding suffrage at 15, however raised the age to 18 in 2007.
The UK has first considered changing the voting age to 16 in 1999, when the House of Commons considered an amendment to the Representation of the People Bill. In order to create more stir around this idea, in 2003 a group of young people, organisations and network politicians across the UK launched the Votes at 16 coalition; part of its rationale was the need to show trust and respect and empower 16 and 17 year olds, through a democratic right, to influence decisions defining their future, motivate young people to get involved in the exercise of democracy and ensure youth matters are represented. By comparison, the Votes at 16 coalition exemplifies other rights 16 year olds legally have in the UK such as to give consent for medical treatment, enter work or training, pay income tax, obtain tax credits and welfare benefits in their own right, get married or enter a civil partnership, join the armed forced, etc. In 2006, the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time Gordon Brown indicated he favoured expanding the voting age to 16 provided it was made concurrently with effective citizenship education: “Although the voting age has been 18 since 1969, it is right, as part of that debate, to examine, and hear from young people themselves, whether lowering that age would increase participation.” The debate regarding giving young people as young as 16 the right to vote, has been reignited by the referendum on the UK’s membership to the European Union in 2016, especially since in the referendum about Scotland’s independence in 2014, 16 and17 year olds had been able to vote.
Discussions over the voting age seem to be inevitably tied up with the matter of the “age of majority” or the age at which individuals are recognised, by law, as adults. Arriving at a collective definition of ‘maturity’ may play a key role in deciding the appropriate minimum voting age. From a physical standpoint, research shows the rational part of a human’s brain seems to completely develop around the age of 25. However, since maturity is a relative term, a perception, it may depend on various intellectual, emotional and spiritual factors such as life and work experience, level of education, the ability to make decisions based on one’s values, ethics and morals, instead of what feels good in the moment. Idealism seems to turn to reality as people learn and observe.
Engaging people in decision-making at a younger age may help make them more aware of a country’s political system and offer them more of an investment in what’s happening. Implementing a voting starting at 16, combined with a compulsory and objective political and economic education may create productive results by offering people a deeper understanding of the events happening every day in their county. Democracy appears to thrive on the ability of the electorate to make well-informed decisions and any democracy may only be as sound as the education and maturity level of its people.
What criteria may ultimately decide the appropriate voting age?