Time to give our younger citizens a voice?

By David Farrell (June 21, 2010)

The following letter appeared in today’s Irish Times:

Madam, – On behalf of sixth class girls of Scoil Phádraic Cailíní, we would like to put forward some ideas about children having a say in political matters. After a debate in class we began to realise we would have to wait at least six or seven years before we can vote. One proposal we discussed in class to address this problem is having meetings with local TDs who could explain to us about the workings of local politics. We found that the majority of adults, politicians, etc, do not take us seriously simply because of our age; while we believe that we should be judged as individuals regardless of our age.

We also thought of introducing politics as an option in secondary school to develop our ideas and broaden our career options and understanding. This way we would be better qualified to make decisions in the future. …In conclusion, we believe that whatever age you are, your feelings and contributions should be respected. – Yours, etc,

Scoil Phádraic Cailíní

Why do we hold to the position that someone must be 18 before they can vote (which, if you’re unlucky about your birthday timing could mean waiting until your 22nd birthday before you actually get to vote)?

Across the world debates are being held over whether to lower the voting age to 16.  A number of countries (among them Austria) have already moved in this direction. Fine Gael have signaled a willingness to consider such a move here, though only vaguely. Given the terrible financial legacy that we’re leaving for our future generations, perhaps we should give them a voice now.

And, while we’re at it, we could introduce politics and democracy into the second level curriculum — something that is long, long overdue.


15 thoughts on “Time to give our younger citizens a voice?

  1. Voting is a habitual act and research shows that once a person has voted for the first time ever, then they are much more likely to vote in following elections. Socialising young voters into the act of voting is key to addressing Ireland’s abysmally low turnout levels amongst the youngest age cohorts, and also addressign our lower than average overall turnouts. Young voters are more likely to vote (and, perhaps more importantly, to register to vote) if they are 16/17/18, still living at home and receiving positive reaffirmation about the importance of voting from school, than if they are in their late teens/early twenties and away from home at college or work.

  2. Wonderful ideas, I’d sign up to (even, vote for) both of them. Giving younger people the right to vote empowers them, and changes incentives within the political classes to woo them. You’ll see Inda and the Bif with baseball caps on backwards, etc, etc. The notion of democratising education would be extremely interesting as well.

  3. I’m not sure if I am really that keen on giving sixteen year olds the vote – there are a number of other reforms I’d like to see to encourage youth political engagement before taking such a dramatic step.

    For example, the constitution currently allows the vote at 18 but election to the Dáil is only open to those over 21. Looking back at the Oireachtas debate on the constitutional referendum to reduce the voting age from 21 to 18, it appears this was just an oversight at the time.

    A few more of the changes I think could be looked at in this area can be found on a Young Fine Gael paper I was involved with a few years ago.


    I think we should hold off on doing something like reducing the age to 16, until we have tried our best with political education and practice for those in school, and to ensure participation for those in the 18-25 age group.

  4. @David
    “politics and democracy into the second level curriculum”

    While in favour of this, I would not like to see any dilution in the effort needed to ensure that our primary and secondary curricula deal positively with the issues raised by people like HEA’s Tom Boland, as reported in the ITimes last year 13June 2009

    “UNIVERSITY ACADEMICS are increasingly concerned about the performance of some Leaving Cert students who are “spoon-fed” in school and expect the same in college, the chief executive of the Higher Education Authority, Tom Boland said yesterday.
    In a key address, he also pointed to increasing evidence that the quality and employability of Irish graduates was declining, when compared to other developed states.
    Mr Boland said he was hearing “increasing unease” among academics about the dominance of rote learning in the Leaving Cert exams and the lack of independent learning. Greater coherence was required, he said, between the second- and third-level systems.
    “Increasingly, I am hearing alarm at the extent to which our second-level system is producing students who learn to the test; who in ever greater numbers are not learning to think for themselves; who receive spoon-feeding at second level and expect the same at third.
    “I have a concern that, in response, too many of our academic departments at third level are responding to this learned behaviour, not by challenging it but by collaborating in it, even to the extent of worrying grade inflation. We need to seriously re-imagine key levels of our second-level system.”

    From listening to others and reading other material over the past year, I gather that what is at stake is primarily competence in English, Maths, Science coupled with some ability to analyse and synthesize independently of a formally structured setting eg. class room.

    @Stephen Kinsella
    “notion of democratising education”
    I always understood democratising education to mean making sure that everyone had access, regradless of means or background or creed, to all formal schooling such that each person can develop their personal potential and be socialised into the society which the support for such education.
    Perhaps I have misunderstood something, but it is not clear how your phrase fits with the topi of David’s posting.

  5. Austria have already experimented with votes at 16. It appears from the evidence I have heard of that those aged 16-17 voted in larger proportions than did those aged 18-19. Mark Franklin argued several years ago for this reform on the basis that former are more likely to live at home, and be part of established social networks [http://bit.ly/cxfOki]. He has provided quite persuasive evidence to show that a significant element in the turnout decline in Western democracies stems from giving votes to 18 year olds, who tend not to vote initially, and develop a habit of not doing so.

  6. I too find Mark Franklin’s arguments persuasive and am in inclined to be in favour of voting at 16. In addition, in Norway the NSSDA runs a very interesting programme where all school children in second level vote in proxy elections. Politicians visit all the schools and the kids vote on real ballot papers about 10 days before the real thing. The results receive a lot of media attention and the young are socialised into voting. There is not that much detail in English but there is some in this document:

    You can also translate their web-site into reasonable english using google translate:
    1. Go to http://translate.google.no/#
    2. Select translate from norwegian to english
    3. Write http://www.samfunnsveven.no into the box and press ‘translate’.
    The main sections are ‘School election’ and ‘Data Resources – School election’ in menu to the left.

  7. @ John: I don’t see why political education and the right to vote should be mutually exclusive? Surely improved political education would only strengthen the argument for reducing the voting age?

    It must be said that it seems that young people are, at the moment, among the few groups in Irish society that can be flagarantly discriminated against with little or no repercussions. Current policy on social welfare is a prime example – below is an excerpt from the Department of Social Protection Website. As a mental experiment, imagine inserting any other minority grouping in society instead of ‘those 20-24’ – imagine that it said, for example ‘Members of the Travelling Community’:

    ’22. What Changes are being introduced to Jobseekers Payment for those aged 20-24 in Budget 2010?

    For new entrants, the rate of Jobseekers Allowance is being reduced to €100 per week for 20-21 year olds the qualified adult rate of €100 applies if the couple have no children.

    The rate of Jobseekers Allowance is €150 per week for those aged 22-24. The qualified adult rate of €130.10 applies if the couple have no children.
    (see Question 23 below regarding those not affected)
    From 29th April 2009 the maximum personal rate of Jobseeker’s Allowance for all new claims for persons under 20 years was reduced to €100.00

    The basic rates of Supplementary Welfare Allowance payable to new claimants aged 24 and under is being reduced and the Qualified Adult rate (eg for a spouse) payable where the main claimant is aged 20-21 is also being reduced to €100 per week.’

    I would contend that such a policy is only possible in a context where young people tend not to be politically involved and where, for whatever reason, their elders in government and indeed, in the electorate are happy to allow such discriminatory measures.

  8. I don’t see why political education and the right to vote should be mutually exclusive? Surely improved political education would only strengthen the argument for reducing the voting age?

    I don’t think they are mutually exclusive. I am just not convinced for the case of extending the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds. The merit in this proposal as outlined here appears to be in the context of improving voting turnout. That’s a functional argument, and I believe that we should try less fundamental measures to improve voter turnout amongst young people first before resorting to something which would require constitutional change.

    There may be convincing arguments about the injustice of excluding 16 and 17 year olds from the electoral rolls. David on Twitter pointed me in the direction of works which may tackle that issue, and I am willing to be convinced of it. But from my viewpoint, voting should be confined – for want of a better phrase – fully fledged and independent adults. While plenty of 16 and 17 year olds fall in that category, as a rule of thumb we as a society don’t consider that to fall into that category. We don’t trust any of them to drink or to have sex, we don’t trust the 16 year old to drive or join the army. After all if a 16 or 17 year old is still in full time education, their parents get paid child benefit. I don’t see why we should entrust something as important as choosing our countries future to a section of society we don’t trust with a pint of Smithwicks.

    The voting age is an utterly arbitrary issue, for a majority of this state’s history it was confined to those over the age of 21. The Dáil debate on that change is available here:


    As I said, I’m willing to be convinced by the case for reducing the voting age – but if it is solely from a functional perspective, then measures like the Norwegian model above should be tried first.

    • Maybe it is usefulto invert the question – rather than asking why we should ‘give’ 16 and 17 year olds the vote, we might ask, why should we deny them the vote?

      Certainly as a demographic, they are heavily reliant on state funding, with high numbers in full-time education – is that an argument from taking the vote away from any full-time student in receipt of a grant?

      Even if it were valid, you could turn the demographic arguments on their head – if this age group has an unusually high level of interaction with and dependence on the state, then surely it is even more important that they have a formal say in how it is run?

      We have restrictive laws with regards to the sexual rights, and rights to drive and consume alcohol of 16 and 17 year-olds, but that in itself can’t be a fiar reason for excluding them – given that they are formally excluded from participating in the process by which those laws are made. One set of discriminatory laws can’t be invoked to support another set of discriminatory laws.

      Certainly, 16 and 17 year olds are in something of a societal grey area with regard to some specific rights and responsibilities – but they are very much subject to society’s laws – they can be taxed on their income, and indirectly taxed on any expenditure, and they can be detained against their will for contravening the law.

      Surely ‘functional arguments’ about registration and turnout are is secondary to arguments based on democratic principles?

      • I agree that functional arguments are secondary to those about democratic principles. There are a host of people who are subject to this state’s laws who are deprived of the right to participate in the process to decide those laws. That doesn’t just apply to the 16 and 17 year olds – it also holds for an infant, a 15 year old, an incarcerated criminal or a non-UK foreigner. After all, the ultimate age of criminal responsibility in this state is 12. Should they get the vote?

        Essentially, we can invert this argument all day long, however I don’t believe it will add much to any process of political reform. There is a status quo in place about the age of 18 being an appropriate age to give people the right to vote. This is a status quo which would appear to have widespread acceptance. Certainly in my time canvassing the public, engagement with youth politics and generally being a citizen, it has never been raised as a burning issue by anyone with me. Our laws seem to presume that under 18s are lesser citizens than those over 18 in a whole host of area.

        Presuming that this is somewhat reflective of the world outside of me, my own view is that the justification for change must come from those who seek to make those changes.

  9. In a totally unscientific survey last night I asked five 16 year olds if they felt they would like to have the vote. All 5 felt they should have a vote. Broadly their reasons centred around feeling excluded from having any say on decisions that affect them and indeed decisions that will affect them for the rest of their lives ( eg Nama). More positively, they felt that a vote would give them more say over their lives and would make them think about how the world works more. One did say he could then vote for a party that would lower the drinking age, but he was an exception…

  10. My name is Maeve Sweeney I am one of the girls who wrote the original letter, published in the Irish Times on Monday the 21st of June. The point was that our ideas are not taken seriously and we have no say in matters that will affect us in later life, because all the political decisions made now will affect us in our futures. All we want is to be taken seriously and for our ideas to be heard especially as we are the future voting generation of Ireland.

    We want to understand matters, how the country is run, and why decisions are made. Some recent government decisions we (even though we are only 12) will be paying for and will affect us for the rest of our lives. The only way we can understand is if we are told and people explain to us in detail so we will know how our government works because, right now we have no way of knowing.

    It is not up to only our parents to inform us on everything, it is up to politicians, we should be taken into consideration and it is up to the government to make sure we are all well informed. As we said before someone should listen to our views and I think that we should have meetings with the local TD’s. We also feel it would be of great benefit for politics to be taught in school to help us understand how local and national government works. It shouldn’t matter what age you are, we are citizens in a democracy and we deserve to be heard! Maeve

  11. I would agree, Maeve, given that you can probably look forward to paying for the decisions made in the last few years indirectly through less money being available for education, healthcare, public transport etc.

    I think more generally 12 might ultimately be a target voting age to aspire to. 16 is appealing because it is seen as ‘plausible’ and ‘realistic’ but what is the underlying rationale? As far as I can see it is to do with the minimum age at which one can leave school – as far as I know, children can work part time from 14 onwards.

    To make a generalisable argument, it depends on where you draw the line on when one has responsibility with regards to obeying the law – which we currently define as 12 (though up until recently this distinction was applied at age 7).

    Presumably this implies that at age 12, we deem individuals sufficiently developed to understand the lws of the land, and punish them for failing to obey those laws.

    There is no reason why, following a programme of civic education throughout primary school, we should expect that 12 year olds would not be able to cast an informed vote.

  12. One of the main reasons we wrote this letter in the first place was that the older generation, the majority anyway, ignored our point of view, making us feel undervalued and just, useless. We basically stand by while people make decisions for us, not even being told how it will affect us now and in the future.

    What we need more than anything though is a better education of politics, before any talk of lowering the miniumum age. What is the point in giving us the right to vote when we don’t even know or understand what we are actually voting for?

  13. When we wrote this letter we wanted people to understand how infuriating it is to have decisions made for you even when you might not agree with them or understand them. When the Lisbon Treaty was introduced I knew people who didn’t understand the treaty yet they had the ability to vote, if meetings with local T.D’s were introduced or if politics was a subject in Secondary school such matters could be avoided in the future.We understand that people might not be ready to give children a say in political matters, but we think that the sooner this is done the better future there is for children.

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