It’s time for Vote@16 in the EU: who is in favour and who is against?

Young people are at the forefront of the challenges European society is going through: fighting youth unemployment, making quality education inclusive and accessible for all, countering disinformation with appropriate media literacy skills, fostering common European values and European identity, and reconnecting citizens with institutions. These are essential to creating cohesive societies, where democracy is enhanced and where everyone is able to contribute to the political, social, economic and cultural development of their societies.

We need to strengthen European citizenship and our democracy, and for that youth must be allowed real influence. Granting more young people the right to vote can play a big role in this. Granting 16 year-old European citizens voting rights would encourage them to participate in democratic processes. The movement towards lowering the voting age to 16 has already started – 16 year-olds can vote in Estonia, Austria, Malta – but we need to accelerate the process by convincing more countries to follow suit.

Developments in the UK

On 3rd November 2017, the UK House of Commons debated a private member’s bill, introduced by Labour MP Jim McMahon that seeks to reduce the voting age to 16. The proposal has been officially backed by Labour, Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party, Party of Wales and the Green Party, but is strongly opposed by the Conservative party. The bill, officially titled the representation of the people (young people’s enfranchisement and education) bill, would have to go a long way to become a law, but the fact that it was debated already shows the need to find new ways to empower young people, and to engage them more in decision making.

The Labour Party has been advocating for vote at 16 for quite some time, but it was in Scotland that 16 and 17 year-olds were first granted the vote in the Independence Referendum in 2014, which claimed a 75% turnout for the age group, and in its local and Scottish elections. Wales has also started a discussion on the matter, which might shake things up and open the door for fruitful negotiations, and, hopefully, legislative change in the future.

The debate in Parliament gave an opportunity for both parties to present their views on the matter, which can be summarised in the following argument for and against lowering voting age to 16.

Among the main arguments why we need vote at 16 were:

●Demographic change and an ageing society that results in policies that are oriented towards an older electorate,

●Creating a habit among young people for active participation in the future,

●Young people make knowledge-based decisions,

●Young people need to have the rights that match their duties.

Arguments against vote at 16 included:

●Young people are too politically immature (even though studies show that by the age of 15–16 young people have gained a sufficient level of cognitive competence to be allowed to vote);

●Young people have more radical voting behaviour tendencies (despite studies that show that the voting behaviour of young people does not differ significantly from their older counterparts).

The UK’s case gives quite a lot of food for thought to reflect on whether this left-right divide that results in the above-mentioned arguments for and against vote at 16 is reflected also at European level, and what are other possible factors that might determine support for youth-related policies.

To be or not to be: analysing vote at 16 in the Reform of the Electoral Law of the EU

At the On Our Watch Hackathon in October 2017, we tried to look at the factors that might influence support for vote at 16 on the European level by analysing the most recent related vote in the European Parliament.

In November 2015, the European Parliament voted on a legislative initiative resolution to reform European elections. The overall report recommended that EU Member States consider lowering the voting age to 16. When discussing the resolution in plenary, an amendment (Am. 44S) sought to remove this recommendation. Am. 44 was defeated by a narrow margin of 323-276 votes, and thus the European Parliament officially backed the idea of vote at 16 for the first time.

Does age matter for the support of policies that benefit young people?

Unsurprisingly perhaps, it seems the age of Members of the Parliament (MEPs) does influence whether they support vote at 16 or not. The graph below (Nr. 1) shows 75% of MEPs below 40 voted against removing vote at 16 from the resolution. Around half of MEPs above that age were also in favour of vote at 16 (approximately 55%).

This highlights the value of having young people represented in Parliament for more youth-friendly policies.


Graph Nr. 1

Countries with a stronger civil society sector generally tend to support youth participation more

Vote at 16 is more supported by MEPs that come form EU Member States that have a longer history of civil society activism, and a stronger civil society sector in general. Country-focused analysis (Nr. 2) shows that MEPs from Eastern and Central European countries (Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary and Latvia) are less in favour of vote at 16 in comparison with MEPs from Western European countries. The exception here is the case of Romania that strongly supported vote at 16. This could be explained by the fact that Romania indeed has quite a history of civil society movements led by young people. It was especially prominently seen in the past few years, as young people took the lead in massive protests against corruption.


Graph Nr. 2

The UK is also an outlier in this trend, which can be explained by other factors linked to party politics. The majority of UK MEPs that wanted vote at 16 removed from the resolution belong to the Conservative (ECR Group) and Eurosceptic UKIP (EFDD Group).

Party politics matter, but are not the definite factor

MEPs do follow their party line quite accurately – only a handful of MEPs voted differently than their internal party position on the vote at 16 amendment. The graph bellow (Nr. 3) shows that more centre right parties led by EPP were strongly against vote at 16, while S&D, ALDE and Greens were favourable. On the other hand MEPs coming from EU member States that strongly support vote at 16 (Estonia, Malta, Ireland, Austria, Italy), even if belonging to a group in the EP that is predominantly against, such as EPP, in majority of cases voted against the amendment (more information can be found here).


Graph Nr. 3

MEPs that have been studying social sciences are more in favour of youth friendly policies

Among other variables that influence MEPs’ support for vote at 16 is education. The graph bellow (Nr. 4) indicates that MEPs that studied social sciences and education are among the ones that supported vote at 16 the most (voted against the amendment), while the ones that studied agriculture, economics or engineering are clearly less interesting in giving young people the right to meaningfully participate in democracy. Hence, to have more policies that benefit young people, we need to look at MEPs with a good understanding and background in social sciences and education.


Graph Nr. 4

The Final Word

Even though the graphs presented only analyse one vote in the European Parliament on a very specific matter, it shows some recurring trends of attitudes towards voting at 16 and youth participation. It is interesting to note some of the factors that influence political representatives’ tendency for youth-friendly policy making, which offers food for thought for people advocating for young people and their rights at the European level.