Last year, political scientist Sarah de Lange, as a member of the Council for Public Administration, advised the Dutch parliament and government to lower the voting age to 16. She explains why it is important to give 16 and 17-year-olds the right to vote, and how lowering the voting age contributes to the quality of our democracy.
You can better support young people who vote earlier
‘In your adolescence, roughly between the ages of 13 and 18, you develop democratic standards and values, as well as your most important political convictions. It’s also the period of your life in which your political involvement takes shape. The only thing is, at this age, you have few possibilities to demonstrate this involvement, because you’re not allowed to vote yet. Research shows that lowering the voting age makes it easier to foster this involvement, for instance at school.’
Sarah de Lange
‘This way, young people gain experience with political participation in a phase of their life where they are still open to influence, and this increases the chance of them actually voting. In fact, research shows that people who vote the first time they are eligible to do so will then go to the polling station more often in later life. So if voter turnout among young people rises due to a lowering of the voting age, this can lead to a higher electoral turnout in the future, too. This is an important argument for giving 16 and 17-year olds the right to vote.’
‘But there’s yet another reason for giving young people the chance to vote from the age of 16. Nowadays, younger people and older people often have different standpoints on political issues, but since young people aren’t allowed to vote, their views are often underrepresented in politics. Lowering the voting age can improve this level of representation.’
Political inequality between young people with higher and lower education levels
‘Lowering the voting age also creates possibilities for addressing the political inequality between young people with higher and lower levels of education. Currently, lower educated young people in the Netherlands vote less often and have less political self-confidence. At the last election in 2017, for instance, 80% of higher educated young people voted, while the figure for the lower educated was 60%. This is a major discrepancy, and it’s very concerning.’
‘Lower educated young people believe in our democratic system, but they don’t feel that politics is for them. As a result, they feel very distanced from political parties and politicians. In the short term, this means they disengage and don’t vote in elections. In the long term, this disengagement can also lead to political radicalisation, for instance on extremist online platforms.’
‘By already getting these young people involved at the age of 16, you can connect with them much better. You get them involved in the political process in the period their democratic standards and values are being formed and their political self-confidence can still be boosted. What’s more, they are all still at school, so you can also reach them through education.’
Education plays an important role in political development
‘Actually, education plays an important role in the political development of all young people. At the age of 18, when you’re old enough to vote, you actually have the lowest degree of anchoring. In many cases, you’ve just started at a new education institution or are beginning your first job, gaining new groups of friends or leaving home. The bonds with all institutions and persons important for your political socialisation become looser. But at the age of 16, you still have to attend school, where you acquire knowledge of politics and develop your civic competence in the compulsory social studies courses. In this way, you also learn the value of your vote, and you feel better equipped to vote in elections.’
‘Apart from the education route, there are, of course, other ways of getting young people more involved in politics, such as opening polling stations in schools and thus lowering the threshold for voting. Youth workers who can more easily reach young people can also help, especially for young people with a lower level of education.’
‘At the same time, there are measures for which we don’t really know the effect. To give one example, there are municipalities where the mayor sends a personal letter to young people who are eligible to vote for the first time, encouraging them to go to the polling station. This is a very nice idea, but does it work? Is this more likely to get them to vote?’
What are the arguments against lowering the voting age?
‘It’s often claimed that young people aged 16 are simply not yet ready to vote. Their teenage brains supposedly make them much too impulsive. Research shows that teenagers can have huge conflicts with their parents and can react emotionally to things that hinder them, but this kind of impulsiveness plays almost no role when they cast their vote. While voting, they take “cold decisions”, as they are called: carefully considered and driven by substantive aspects.’
‘We already know from research in Austria that 16-year-olds vote on the basis of substantive considerations. Young people from the age of 16 have already been able to vote there since 2007, and it appears the quality of their voting motivation doesn’t differ from that of older voters. They allow themselves to be guided by the substantive positions of political parties to the same degree as other voters.’
First, the constitution needs to be adjusted
‘Adjusting the voting age can’t be done overnight, because this is set out in the Dutch constitution. The proposal by the Council for Public Administration is to remove the age requirement from the constitution and thus to create space for experiments at the municipal level. Various parties are lending their support to this proposal and have included lowering the voting age in their election manifestos. Unfortunately, there is still no political majority for our proposal, but we are hopeful that this will emerge in the course of time.’
What do young people typically vote?
‘Young people who are able to vote for the first time tend to support newer parties – they are simply more open to the range of existing parties than older voters. Moreover, certain parties focus more on the social problems that young people are concerned about. The themes that young people worry about are to some extent determined by their level of education. But in the end, these themes change with each election, which makes it hard to say what young people will do and why.
‘Our Dutch elections in March this year will be exciting in general terms, because what impact will the coronavirus have? Will we soon all be able to go to the polling station? What impact will the school closures and online education have on young people, all the more so because they might not be getting education in social studies now? We have no idea whether young people who are now eligible to vote for the first time will do this to the same degree as in “normal” times.’
Researching generational differences
De Lange, together with colleague political scientist Wouter van der Brug and a group of PhDs, is researching the voting behaviour of younger as opposed to older generations. ‘We already know that this voting behaviour differs,’ says de Lange. ‘For instance, it’s not surprising that young people vote more for green parties. But are the factors that influence the voting patterns of younger people different to those for older voters? Our hypothesis is that older generations were socialised in a time of social contrasts, when background characteristics such as class and religion played an important role, while younger people are becoming politically mature in a time of polarisation and socio-cultural contrasts. So their voting behaviour will probably be influenced by other issues.’
‘The first results of this project, a sub-study by our PhD Linet Durmuşoğlu on the dynamic interactions between parents and their children, point to a surprising conclusion. Parents are just as much influenced in their viewpoints and voting preferences by their children as the children are by their parents. We’re now investigating whether this relates to how often parents and their children discuss politics at home.’