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Why We Should Vote at Age 16

Javier Carbonell Castañer, Kilian Wirthwein Vega

6 mins - 16 de Abril de 2024, 07:00

Recently, Minister Sira Rego proposed that "young people from the age of 16 should be able to vote in the next elections". This was one of the most debated issues in the European Parliament, so much so that in 2022 a commitment was reached to reduce the voting age as is already the case in Austria, Belgium, Malta and Germany. In the report "Vulnerable Youth and Democracy in Spain", carried out for FEPS (European Foundation for Progressive Studies), FES Madrid (the Spanish office of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung) and the Felipe González Foundation, we propose this idea as a way of bringing democracy closer to young people. But is this a good measure? Comparative experience and empirical evidence show that it is.

The first reason is demographic: there are not enough young people in Spain to represent an electorate that politicians pay attention to. There are currently 5.8 million people under 30 with the right to vote but this only represents 22% of the electorate. Meanwhile, the over-65s number 9.4 million. Young people have lost weight rapidly in the last decades, in the 1990s, for example, there were 9 million young people and 5.9 million people over 65. This means that the interests of young people in Spain are under-represented in the political system, as only one in ten politicians are under 30 years old

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The lack of youth representation is a problem for two reasons. Firstly, because the situation of young people in Spain is very complicated. Today, people over 65 accumulate on average 5 times more wealth than a 35-year-old, a difference that has been increasing since the 1990s. Moreover, the percentage of young people under 35 who own a home has fallen from 69% in 2011 to 36% in 2020, because while in 1987 buying a house cost 3.3 years of rent, today it is more than 8.

Secondly, the representation of young people's interests is good for the democratic system as they have a wide range of interests that look not only to their professional situation, but also to the future of society as a whole. Thus, it is young people who are most concerned and mobilised about climate and housing issues, two key issues facing our country. Listening more to young people would change the issues we talk about in public discourse. Lowering the voting age to 16 would therefore add almost a million more people to the electorate and thus help them become a focus of interest for political parties, which would better tailor their programmes to represent their interests.

Lowering the voting age to 16 would also help the health of the democratic system. In recent months, some polls and surveys suggest that many young people have reduced their support for democracy as a political system. In the report we argue that these surveys actually mask the perception of many young people that they do not live in a real democracy, as the promise of well-being, control over their lives and decision-making on social issues is not being fulfilled. It is therefore necessary to improve the channels of participation in order to re-engage these young people in democracy.  In this sense, evidence shows that young people who vote earlier also show higher levels of trust in the democratic system and confidence in politics.

Moreover, this measure has the effect of causing young people who vote earlier to vote earlier to do so for the rest of their lives. One reason is that many young people who could vote at 18 do not do so because they are moving to a new city to study, or entering a new field of work where elections are not a priority. In contrast, the vast majority of 16-year-olds still live with their parents in the district where they are registered and have the time to vote. For example, in Austria, 16-year-olds turned out to vote more than 18-year-olds.

However, lowering the voting age to 16 is, above all, a question of justice. Our democratic system is based on the principle that we citizens govern ourselves. However, in Spain, at 16 a person can work, contribute and pay taxes as an adult in some matters, but does not have the capacity to decide on the labour, fiscal or criminal policy of his or her country. This is an incongruity and a flagrant violation of the democratic principle of "no taxation without representation" that motivated the American Revolution.

The big argument against lowering the voting age - the only one, really - is that 16-year-olds would not be mature enough to choose. It is contradictory to accept that they are mature enough to have the right to work or pay taxes but not the right to vote. Moreover, the fear of the consequences of immaturity seems unreasonable. If the fear is that young people will be influenced by their environment, then no one could have the right to vote, since we all form our political opinion in interaction with our environment. Moreover, voting at 18 is no guarantee for a more mature vote, as the main victims of internet hoaxes are often the older strata of society

Beyond allaying fears, this argument needs to be turned on its head, as lowering the age to 16 could help accelerate the maturity of young people. Having the right to vote would give them an incentive to inform themselves earlier and, moreover, there are some experiments that show that on this issue, the voting age, young people already present more sophisticated arguments than adults.

In short, lowering the voting age to 16 is not a panacea, but it is a positive policy. The limited academic evidence available indicates that, although moderate, the effects are generally positive in terms of political participation, youth representation and the quality of democracy. However, it is not enough on its own. For this reason, in the report "Vulnerable Youth and Democracy in Spain" we added a battery of measures to increase young people's capacity to participate, such as strengthening youth associations or including a "youth perspective" in the general state budgets. 

Improving the voice of young people would not only help them, but would have positive consequences for everyone. After all, youth passes with time, but its effects reverberate throughout our lives. 
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