With Scotland lowering the voting age in the upcoming independence referendum, Laura Woulfe examines the relevance of this decision to contemporary Irish society
The issue of voting age is a subject that is becoming increasingly topical in the twenty-first century. It has often been suggested, as said by Professor David Farrell of the School of Politics, that: “people are maturing earlier; 21 seemed like a reasonable age [to vote] up to the ‘70s, 18 then seemed like a reasonable age, now 16 seems more reasonable.”
However, as Theodore Roosevelt once famously said: “A vote is like a rifle; its usefulness depends upon the character of the user.” Are the characters of 16 year-olds today strong enough to be able to cast a responsible vote worthy of affecting national politics? The arguments from those against lowering the voting age claim that those aged 16 and 17 are simply too immature to be trusted with a vote. However, according to the Chair of the UCD Young Fine Gael, Lorcan Nyhan: “If we deem young people mature enough to work, pay tax and drive at 17, then we must deem them mature enough to vote.”
In early October, the news that the Scottish Government will reduce the voting age from 18 to 16 for the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence caused a lot of discontent among the English Government. Many believed that allowing 16 and 17 year-olds to vote in the referendum would inevitably lead to a lowering of the UK-wide voting age. However, in Austria, the first country in the European Union to lower the voting age to 16, there appears to be no sense “of any regret that they went down this route,” according to Farrell. This success story encourages the thought that we are entering an era where more and more countries are going to question the standard voting age.
While Nyham opposes this idea, saying: “I don’t think one country giving 16 year-olds the vote for one election will influence other European countries.” It is something that may directly affect the people of Ireland in the near future as Fine Gael intend to propose lowering the Irish voting age to 17 in the Constitutional Convention that will be held later this year. One problem with reducing the voting age in Ireland is that there is a general consensus that Irish teenagers have very little interest in politics. Eamonn Waters stated in his article ‘Ireland – Young Population, Old Political Systems’ that: “fewer people are voting and quite a number of those abstaining are young. Strangely for a country with the youngest population in Europe, Ireland’s political profile also looks relatively old.”
Logically, this causes many people to question the potential significance of lowering the voting age to 17 in Ireland. “Lowering the voting age would not lead to a huge increase in interest at first but I believe that it would show that we are serious about engaging with the youth of today and that the Government values their opinion and input,” says Nyham.
Indeed, many people against lowering the voting age, use the argument that “when we reduced the voting age from 21 to 18, turnout in elections went down, because younger people are reckless, they’re not thinking about politics, they have other things on their minds so they’re not voting. However there is an alternative argument that says one of the reasons was because the age was set at the wrong level,” explains Farrell.
It is thought that if Ireland lowers the voting age and improves political education in secondary schools that more young people will be influenced to vote. “If you reduce the voting age to 16, you’re going to get young people who for the most part are still at home, they might still be at school. If you tie that in with civics and democracy trainings in schools, which is something we really should be doing, there’s a greater chance that it will instill in people of that age the importance of voting,” says Farrell. As a result, hopefully young people will continue to vote throughout their late teenage years and early twenties. “If you don’t vote in your first election, there is a greater likelihood that you’ll never vote. The most important election is your first election.”
However, an even more effective way to get young people interested in politics and using their vote is through social media. Only recently, the Washington Post discovered that the majority of young people had interests in “political and social issues, but also strayed far from traditional methods of expressing themselves in these realms.” This indicates that if political discussion and awareness featured on Facebook or Twitter, more young people would be inclined to learn about or even actively get involved in politics. “We are seeing a generational shift in how people engage with politics. What you are more likely to find now among younger citizens are a greater willingness to be involved in social media type campaigning in order to express their political viewpoints,” says Farrell.
As it is possible that Ireland may be lowering the voting age to 17 in the foreseeable future, the chance for young people to bring something new to the old man’s game is to be relished. As Nyham states: “Young people bring an extremely beneficial fresh outlook to politics and the sooner we engage with young people the sooner we see the benefit of this outlook.”