by Shada Islam*
They’re tough, they’re outspoken and they’re everywhere. Except in voting booths. As teenagers around the world put adults to shame over the climate crisis, gun violence and fighting inequality, it’s time to stop dithering and give the vote to 16-year-olds.
The question is not new. But it is increasingly relevant. Italy’s new ruling coalition has come out in favour of reducing the minimum voting age to 16, hopefully triggering an EU-wide debate on the issue.
The building blocks for such a discussion are already there. Austria became the first EU country to give the vote to 16-year-olds in 2007. In March 2018, the Maltese Parliament unanimously voted to lower official voting age from 18 to 16.
In the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, the right to vote was extended to 16- and 17-year-olds for the first time. UK’s Labour Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has reiterated his view that Labour should lower the voting age to 16.
The debate has been gaining traction in Ireland where a change in voting age would enfranchise an estimated 126,000 16- and 17-year-olds.
In ‘like-minded’ New Zealand, a youth-led ‘Make It 16’ campaign is gaining momentum. Canada and the US are debating the pros and cons of the issue. In all, about a dozen countries around the world – including Argentina, Brazil and Ecuador – now allow voting at 16.
Why the urgency? The short answer: because it’s 2019. The longer one: just dial back a few weeks to the United Nations General Assembly in New York and watch the sad and dangerous spectacle of ‘world leaders’ elaborating their depressingly narrow world view.
There they were, the so-called ‘strong men’, describing their macho national agendas, the importance of nation states and what it means to be a ‘true patriot’ (FYI: a person who hates ‘the other’).
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and EU Council President Donald Tusk did manage to put in a good word for global solidarity. Tusk very rightly pointed an accusing finger at “fake leaders”.
The real heroes, however, were the passionate and empowered young activists, including Greta Thunberg, who spoke at the Climate Action Summit and who continue to inspire millions of people across the world.
Greta is not alone. The Swedish teen may get all the attention – and the insults – but she is one of many. A total of 16 youth campaigners have filed a complaint with the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child alleging that world leaders’ inaction on the climate emergency has violated children’s rights.
And it’s not just about the climate crisis. Malala Yusufzai, targeted by Islamist extremists in Pakistan, has taken up the cause of educating girls and was awarded the joint Nobel Peace Prize when she was 17.
Aya Chebbi, the African Union’s Special Envoy on Youth, spoke in New York on behalf of millions of young people about the African Union initiative on ‘Silencing the Guns by 2020’ and her generation’s role in building peace. Teens are campaigning for gun control in the US.
Ethan Lindenberger, 18, defied his anti-vaccine mother and got shots against diseases like hepatitis, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, and is now campaigning far and wide for others to get vaccinated.
These and other teens put paid to the argument that teenagers aren’t mature and responsible enough to be given the vote.
The truth is simple: teenagers today are changing our world – for the better. They are informed, committed and proactive. They have adult responsibilities and are actively contributing to society, politics and the economy. Also, long after all of us have gone, it’s teenagers who will have to live with the consequences of climate change, dirty oceans, extremism, wars and violence.
Teen participation in elections would strengthen democracy, increase voter turn-out and force politicians to stop merely pitching to the elderly and to also listen to young peoples’ concerns.
Austria’s experience shows that lowering the voting age results in more political education and the creation of habitual voters. Some 79% of Austrians aged 15 to 30 have voted in the last three years, the highest rate in Europe where the overall average is 64%.
An added advantage: younger people are also more Europhile. Could the Brexit referendum result have been different if 16-year-olds had been allowed to cast their ballots? We’ll never know. But certainly, Britain’s pro-Brexit Conservative Party is against the idea.
Changes in voting legislation take time. Austria, Germany, Poland and Russia granted the vote to women in 1918 but Switzerland waited until 1971 to do so, and Portugal until 1976. Liechtenstein was the last country in Europe to fall in line in 1984.
The voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 in 1971 in the US. Before World War II, most countries set the minimum voting age at 21-years-old. Today, 18 is the most common voting age across the world.
For further proof, Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights insists that “everyone” has the right to partake in their government, either by voting directly or through choosing representatives.
The transformative role of teenage girls will be celebrated in most countries this week as part of activities around the International Day of the Girl on October 11. Speeches are not enough, however.
In a topsy-turvy world where political leaders behave like irresponsible children and children act like real leaders, it’s time to rethink our views on teen power, voting responsibilities and political participation.
*Director for Europe & Geopolitics at Friends of Europe
**first published in: www.friendsofeurope.org