Teenagers of 16 and 17 can vote in a couple of European countries. But is it a good thing?
It's more than 10 years since Austria opened the door to a new generation of voters, allowing sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds to choose their representatives at all levels of government.
In March this year, Malta lowered its general voting age from 18 to 16, becoming the second European Union country to do so at national level.
In Germany, local elections in ten federal Bundesländer-states include under 18s, as do regional polls in Estonia and Scotland.
Ireland could become the next country to lower the voting age, according to Tamara Ehs chairwoman of the Austrian interest group "IG Demokratie".
A pan European change?
A couple of years ago, the European Parliament passed a resolution calling for a lower voting age throughout the EU. In June, an amendment to the European electoral law was adopted to this effect, which includes a general recommendation to lower the voting age. However, these changes now have to be ratified by the individual member states. Also the Council of Europe urged its member countries to allow teenagers to vote starting at age 16.
"Initially, 16- and 17-year-olds should have had a say in the upcoming European elections throughout the EU. But it is now too late for that due to the delayed actions taken by the EU", Ehs observes. For the political expert, voting at 16 is a successful concept, but it's not really an Austrian invention: "Nicaragua and Brazil, for example, lowered their voting age to 16 as early as the 1980s. But at least Austria was a pioneer in Europe."
Why is voting at 16 a successful concept?
"By lowering the voting age, people are dealing with the political landscape at an earlier stage. At the same time, more investment is being made in political education," Ehs notes. Furthermore, she adds that the first election is very important because if it is accompanied by proper information and motivation at school, young people are more likely to participate in later elections. "Thus a political anchor is set among the young citizens."
Initiatives to lower the voting age have a long tradition in Austria: in 1992 the voting age at all levels was reduced from 19 to 18 years. Eight years later, five Austrian federal states lowered the voting age for local and regional elections to 16. Another seven years passed before in 2007 the government of the centre parties ÖVP and SPÖ made it possible to vote nationwide from the age of 16, and this in all elections.
Who do Austria's 16-year-olds vote for?
We met a young Austrian woman who voted for the first time in 2010: Clarissa Groß is studying law and German studies in Graz and was 16 years old during her first election: "I was very much looking forward to being able to vote at 16. I think it's good that the young people in Austria are allowed to have a say in politics. After all, politics affects all of us".
In the meantime, the 23-year-old has already cast her ballot several times, always voting for parties to the left of centre. Groß happens to be very much in line with the trend for her age and gender. "In the 16-25 age group, young women [in Austria] tend to vote centre-left and young men centre-right," Sylvia Kritzinger, professor at the Institute of Political Science at the University of Vienna, told Euronews. However, data is thin on the subject.
"I vote for the freedom party FPÖ! They're cool," 17-year-old Lukas told Euronews at a shopping centre in Vienna where he was hanging out with two of his friends. All three voted for the right-wing populists in the last general election and they think it's positive that 16- and 17-year-olds are allowed to vote in Austria.
Do younger people vote more often than older people?
According to Kritzinger 16- and 17-year-olds are less well represented at the polls than the 30+ category but more likely to vote than 18-21 age group. "This is due to the personal upheaval at this significant age between 18 and 21, where many move out of their parents' houses," she notes.
This is why it is important to involve young people in the political process, especially before they experience this crucial point in their lives and are left to themselves, Kritzinger said.
"But you have to prepare young first-time voters well. This should apply to all age groups, however. But at school, it's easier to do that. That's why I think there's nothing to be said against a voting age of 16 in Europe."
"Lower self-assessment among young women"
Tamara Ehs is convinced that political interest is being increased by lowering the voting age. But there is a gender gap among 18-20-year-olds: "Young men are more interested in politics, young women less, because they rate their political knowledge less highly. Although, according to tests, young women possess the same knowledge as their male peers. They simply have a lower self-assessment," says Ehs.
Sufficient political education in schools?
Clarissa Gross from Graz was already engaged with politics at the time of her first election at 16: "I had even attended the compulsory elective subject of political education. Nevertheless, I didn't feel I was well enough prepared.
More political education is needed in schools. I don't think we've been given enough information." Her classmates also had a similar experience, Groß said.
Turning 16-year-olds into "habitual voters"
According to Kritzinger, the lowering of the voting age did not really change Austria's political landscape. However, it proved to be an important change to introduce young people to the political process at such an early age. "With a low voting age one can educate young people politically, so to speak, make them habitual voters and accompany the whole process at school.
Anyhow, according to the current Eurobarometer, Austria and Italy rank first in voter turnout of 15-30-year-olds. The survey shows that 79 percent of young Austrians reported having voted in local, regional or national parliamentary elections in the last three years. The European average is 64 percent.