Pressure is building in democracies around the world to lower the voting age to 16. For national elections, Brazil (in 1988), Austria (2007) and Argentina (2012) have led the way. For local elections, parts of Germany in 1995, the Isle of Man (2006) and Norway (2011) all lowered the minimum age of voting in elections to 16 years old.
In Australia, however, one political scientist has sought to slow the momentum with a new analysis of the case for lowering the voting age. ANU political scientist Ian McAllister gained media attention recently for his conclusion that the evidence is not strong enough to justify the reform. But is it?
All too often, political scientists engaging in the debate about lowering the voting age see it only in abstract terms. In their analyses voters are ascribed a numerical value corresponding with their age – 16, 18, 21 – without any effort to distinguish the reality of the lives being led by people at these ages.
The turnout question
The central claim made by McAllister, for instance, is that electoral turnout fell in most advanced democracies after the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 from the 1970s onwards. This, he implies, is because turnout among 18-20 year olds was lower than older generations, and they brought down the average.
While one cannot dispute that the enfranchisement of 18-20 year olds coincided with declining turnout, it is misleading to suggest a relationship between the two without considering the wide range of other causes.
For instance, economic inequality increased markedly in recent decades in advanced democracies. The effect of this on political participation has received precious little attention from political scientists. Where it has been studied, the negative impact of inequality on turnout is clear.
How young is too young?
Another common mistake is the assumption that the effect of lowering the voting age to 16 would be the same as lowering it to 18. McAllister admits to assuming that 16-17 year olds are “behaviourally similar” to 18-19 year olds. This is folly: the lives of most 16-17 year olds are markedly different to those aged over 18. 16-17 year olds tend to live with their parents, in a settled community where they have spent much of their lives.
Post-18, by contrast, young people’s lives become far more chaotic. They leave school and may leave home, embark on university or full-time employment, and deal with the range of stresses that accompany adulthood for the first time.
The chart below shows the ages at which people move from one local government jurisdiction to another in England and Wales. The peak time for people to move between areas is 18-19, with almost one-quarter of people doing so.
People in their late teens and early 20s are living precisely the kinds of lives that make them less likely voters before we even take their age into account; 16 and 17 year olds are not. While this does not mean we should expect 16 and 17 year olds to vote in extraordinarily high numbers, it does suggest it will be easier to engage them in elections.
Austria and Australia
For Australia, of course, any attempt to track changes in turnout is rendered irrelevant by compulsory voting. McAllister’s analysis relies on results from the Australian Election Study, a post-election survey, in which people are asked if they would have voted were it not compulsory.
However, it is well-established that post-election surveys tend to over-estimate turnout. Asking people what their behaviour might have been in a hypothetical voluntary election introduces all kinds of additional uncertainty.
We can glean much better insight from overseas: for instance in Austria, where we can assess what 16 year olds actually do after being given the vote. Researchers in Austria have shown that in regional elections, first-time voters are more likely to vote at 16-17 than at 18-20, as per the chart below.
With voting known to be a habitual activity, there is every reason to suspect this will translate into higher overall turnout in the future, notwithstanding the impact of other factors affecting turnout.
We are consistently told by expert opponents of votes at 16, and were told again by McAllister, that the reform is “not a panacea” for the problem of youth disengagement with politics. But the issue about panaceas is that they don’t exist, and nobody really believes they do. No advocates of lowering the voting age think it will automatically transform youth participation in democracy, or that it is the only reform required.