29th Session of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe (Strasbourg, 20-22 October 2015)

Debate on “Voting at 16 – consequences on youth participation at local and regional level”

Speech by Liisa Ansala, Rapporteur of the Congress (Finland, ILDG)

Dear colleagues,

I am very pleased to talk to you today about “voting at 16 and consequences on youth participation at local and regional level”.

You may know that the Congress has been working over many years on the issue of the inclusion of young people in political decision-making processes at local and regional level. In particular, elections have been recognised as a key element for citizens’ active political participation. Through the present draft Report and Resolution I am presenting to you today, the Congress acknowledges that demographic shifts, education, greater access to information, notably through new technologies, and increased political awareness have significantly improved the decision-making capacities of young people and their ability to make an informed choice in elections.

Indeed, lowering the voting age to 16 might have a positive effect on the turnout of elections in the long run, since young people are given an opportunity to exercise their civic rights at an early age. Such an opportunity may also generate interest in the broader sense of civic, social and political engagement as an integral part of an individual’s personal and social development.

On these grounds, and despite considerable resistance, the lowering of the voting age to 16 has been increasingly discussed in recent years in Parliaments throughout Europe. In most Council of Europe member countries, the minimum voting age has been set at 18 – however, several countries have also lowered the voting age to 16 for local and regional elections.

That is why the territorial level seems to be a good ground to experiment the reduction of the voting age to 16. Grassroots’ democracy is tackling matters that are close to citizens and probably easier understandable for young voters because of its relevance for the daily live.

However, the lowering of the voting age to 16 cannot be thought without adjacent means required for its successful implementation. These include the gradual reduction of the age required to stand for elections as well as systematic civil and political education at school.

It is generally recognised that the most efficient way of democratic education of young people is to make political education compulsory at a young age, notably between 12 and 16 years. This is the only time when all young people – even those coming from the most excluded backgrounds – are still in the school system.

The draft Resolution I am presenting today suggests that the Congress actively promotes the issue of lowering the voting age to 16 in local and regional elections, as a measure to further expand democracy at the grassroots’ level.

This could be achieved by a step-by-step approach:

-        Firstly, through a comparative analysis of current practices concerning voting requirements at territorial level, notably voting age, in different member states.

-       Secondly, recommendations should be prepared inviting Council of Europe member states to further harmonise the age for the right to vote, more specifically, to use local and regional elections as a “test case” for the lowering of the voting age to 16.

-       Thirdly, the situation of civic and compulsory political education at school needs to be evaluated in member states and put on the political agenda, where necessary.

In parallel, local and regional authorities and self-government associations, notably in regions with legislative powers, should be encouraged to pursue strategies and engage in campaigns for the lowering of the voting age in grassroots’ level elections.

We all do agree that lowering the voting age is not the only tool to enhance active citizenship and fostering youth participation is a much wider task. But still - voting at 16 is one of the measures to activate young people – the “tip of an iceberg” of active participation, notably at local and regional level.

Dear colleagues, thank you very much for your attention.