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Should 16 year olds have the right to vote? A political scientist and a youth leader debate

Some think younger voters would be too influenced by platforms such as TikTok, but others believe the Scottish independence referendum experience shows voting at 16 can create a democratic habit for life

Eoin O’Malley: No. If the problem is falling turnout, it will not be solved by extending the vote to a group little engaged in politics

When I was born you had to be 21 years old to vote. That was lowered to 18, and there’s no sense that anyone would want to revert to 21. So why not reduce it to 16?

The standard arguments against reducing the age are based on the idea that children aged 16 and 17 are not developed enough to reflect maturely in making their vote choice. Some say it would give too much power to TikTok.

But we know that most adults don’t think that deeply about their vote, and I’m sure there are many older people who vote based on some conspiracy theory they read on Facebook. So that can’t be the reason to maintain the right to vote at 18.

Nor is the reverse true. Some claim that because they do a sort of civics class in school, young people are “prepared” for the act of voting. However, many schoolkids will tell you civic, social, political education (CSPE) is a waste of time, and so 16 and 17 year olds are not better-prepared for voting.

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The standard argument in favour of lowering the voting age is that it increases political participation. Young people are less likely to vote and less engaged in politics. By giving people the vote at 16, those 16 and 17 year olds will be more likely to vote because they are living at home and so will be trained in voting by their parents, learning a habit of voting that will extend through their lives. Most young people, unfortunately, are staying with their parents well into early adulthood, so that’s solved that problem. But even if it were the case that young people were leaving home at 18, the “benefit” of voting at 16 would only be extended to the minority for whom there was an election while they lived at home. It’s a weak argument.

This is the year of elections and it is disappointing the 130,000 young people aged 16 and 17 in Ireland will not be able to have their say in our local and European elections

—  Anna McWey

A better reason for extending the franchise to young people is that as they are more likely to suffer the consequences of bad political decisions and so deserve a voice in those decisions. A 16 year old will be more affected by climate change than a 66 year old. But even if we think that the 16 year old will take a longer view in their vote than a 66 yearold – which is doubtful – it is also the case that a one year old will suffer those impacts of political decisions more. And the unborn future generations will be affected even more.

Any cut-off for voting will by definition be arbitrary, but setting it at adulthood makes some sense. There was a general agreement in the 1960s that 18 year olds were adults. There is no such consensus for 16 year olds. While it is true that young people can make life-changing decisions, such as to get married, many of those things that they can do require parental consent. I doubt too many youth advocates would campaign to have 16 year olds treated as adults in the criminal justice system.

There are many other tools in the political toolbox beyond the act of voting. Those under 18 can involve themselves meaningfully through campaigns such as happened in the Fridays for Future movement. Young people are not disenfranchised politically by having to wait until at least 18 to vote.

If the problem is falling turnout, it won’t be solved by extending the vote to a group that is even less engaged in politics. We know very little about non-voters because they are hard to reach. We could start by finding out why so many young people who do have a vote don’t exercise their franchise.

If the problem is representing the needs of future generations, this won’t happen by the token of reducing the voting age by two years. Which is why it is exactly the sort of thing political parties might go for.

Eoin O’Malley is an associate professor in the cchool of law and government at Dublin City University

Anna McWey: Yes. If young people have the right to get jobs, pay taxes and leave school, they should be allowed to vote

For a country that is a leader in many areas, when it comes to our democracy, we are lagging behind. Belgium, Malta, Austria and Germany are all encouraging 16 year olds and older to vote in the upcoming European elections, but unfortunately, Ireland has still not followed suit in extending the voting age.

This is the year of elections and it is disappointing that the 130,000 young people aged 16 and 17 in Ireland will not be able to have their say in our local and European elections. This opportunity could have significantly increased voter turnout among young people, as has been seen in other countries. If young people have the right to get jobs, pay taxes and leave school why should they not have the right to vote? For those who ask why we should let young people vote when they cannot legally buy alcohol or cigarettes, I would argue that voting will not jeopardise their health, unlike those controlled items. What is there to fear?

Just over 100 years ago, the Representation of the People Act 1918 extended voting rights to all men over 21 and some women for the first time. Its centenary was a timely reminder that the voting age is not fixed in stone, but that it evolves as a society grows and matures. Changes to the franchise have always been hard fought but have always made our democracy stronger. The lesson from the past 150 years is that we have nothing to fear from electoral reform.

One argument put forward against lowering the voting age is that young people are not ready or mature enough to engage with issues. The Government set up the National Youth Assembly of Ireland in 2022, which plays a significant role in including the voice of young people in implementing public policy and prioritising actions for Government. We also have strong platforms such as Comhairle na nÓg and the National Youth Council of Ireland supporting young people to participate and have their voices heard. These structures show that young people do have valuable and informed perspectives, and are willing and eager to play their part.

If the problem is representing the needs of future generations, this won’t happen by the token of reducing the voting age by two years

—  Eoin O’Malley

Scotland’s experience of votes at 16, particularly highlighted during their 2014 independence referendum, supports the notion that young voters are more politically engaged and interested when given the opportunity to participate in significant electoral processes.

Young people deserve more accessible information about how our political system operates. Very useful political education happens in schools, through CSPE, but I believe that even more can be done from transition year through to sixth year so that young people can make informed decisions. There is also an important role for youth organisations to support young people to have the unbiased and factual information that they need to vote, and to be digitally literate when dealing with the vast amount of information available online.

The upcoming elections will have a far-reaching impact on many of the challenges young people are facing. It is too late to extend the voting age this year, but with Minister for Education NormaFoley recently announcing her support for a discussion around whether the voting age should be changed, I am hopeful the franchise will be extended by the time the next local and European Parliament elections take place in Ireland. Now is the time for young people to be heard and for more opportunities to work together across generations.

Anna McWey is a local champion for the National Youth Council of Ireland

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