Voter participation is the backbone of democracy. It gives leaders and governments the legitimacy they require in order to make policy decisions. On the flip side, when voters stay away from the polls, the foundation of democracy itself is eroded. In our next blog series, we cast our eye over various ways in which voter participation can be boosted. First up is the case for lowering the voting age.
Modern democracies have come a long way since the 19th Century. The right to vote, once the preserve of an elite minority, has now been extended to all citizens aged 18 and over in most western democracies. But has the franchise been extended far enough? In light of worryingly low voter turnout figures amongst young voters, many believe lowering the voting age to 16 is the next logical step towards reinvigorating democracy.
Lowering the voting age fosters political engagement
Political apathy is considered to be the major reason by under 25s are less likely to vote nowadays. Participation in US presidential elections has fallen from 50% in 1972 to 38% in 2012. Moreover, in the 2014 mid-term congressional elections only 17% of under 25s took part. This reflects a broader disenchantment with elections and politics felt by young people at large. Lowering the voting age to 16 is proposed as a solution to combat political apathy amongst youngsters and to develop politically engaged citizens from an early age.
Voting, for many, is a habit. Indeed, if people are not introduced to it early then it becomes increasingly harder as they get older. Similarly, 16-year-olds are often still in the school system. Schools are regulated by governments and independent watchdogs which allows for a great degree of transparency in political education. Current attempts involving mock elections do provide a way to express some level of political interest, however, the stakes are not high enough to encourage long-term political engagement.
The sharp increase in the electorate will inevitably draw politicians to try to win the young vote. This could, if fostered correctly in the education system, help to drive long-term policy making. This has been sorely lacking in recent years – where the young vote has been increasingly ignored in favor of aging populations.
Too immature to vote?
Opponents argue that 16 and 17-year-olds are too immature to be entrusted with voting. However, evidence from the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, in which 16 and 17 years olds were able to vote, supports the fact that younger people will become politically engaged when given the opportunity to participate. This was the first time 16 and 17 year-olds were allowed to vote in a political contest in UK history. The turnout figures speak for themselves:
- 109,000 16 or 17-year-olds registered to vote (out of 3.6 million in total)
- 75% voter turnout amongst 16 and 17 year-olds
Lowering the voting age to 16, therefore, seems to be a powerful way to re-engage young people in the democratic process and to foster their continued participation for years to come.
In the next installment, we take a look at compulsory voting as a way to boost voter participation.