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Voting at 16: Exploring a City-led Movement to Lower the Voting Age

October 21, 2021
6 min read
Photo credit: Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock.com
Young people are turning away from institutional politics and traditional forms of democratic participation.

Across the world, youth (broadly defined as 18-34 year-olds), frustrated with prevailing and worsening economic inequality and inaction on pressing issues like climate change and racial justice, increasingly indicate that they do not believe that the current system of democracy can deliver real results to people.

There are wide-ranging policy reforms and educational initiatives that can and should be pursued to repair democracy and young people’s faith in it. One potential reform that can bring more young people into the political process is lowering the voting age to 16. While not a panacea to all of democracy’s current woes, a recent analysis of the long-term effects of lowering the voting age in five countries demonstrated an average 5 percent increase in overall turnout. The change, which has been tested in cities throughout Europe, was also endorsed by all three parties likely to form the next governing coalition in Germany.

As Germany now seems likely to lower its national voting age to 16, the once quixotic reform is set to gain real traction and prominence. It is worth understanding how cities have sparked the movement to lower the voting age and explore its potential as an avenue to improve democratic participation and to demonstrate to young people that they can have a legitimate voice in the political process.

Young people distrusting democracy is increasingly becoming a crisis in itself. A recent study found that in almost every region of the world, 18-34 year-olds articulate the steepest decline in satisfaction with democracy. According to the lead author of the report, Roberto Foa, “This is the first generation in living memory to have a global majority who are dissatisfied with the way democracy works while in their twenties and thirties.” By their mid-thirties, 55 percent of millennials globally indicate that they are dissatisfied with democracy.

These statistics have played out in recent conversations with city leaders who are part of GMF’s Cities Fortifying Democracy project. In meetings on issues ranging from local governance to participation in elections, there is an evident confusion, and sometimes frustration, with young people. City leaders feel that youth do not engage in or care about government or politics. Young people, in turn, have grown frustrated that government leaders do not listen to their concerns. A vicious cycle, familiar in cities across Europe and the United States, persists.

One Piece of the Puzzle

At first blush, lowering the voting age might seem like a far-fetched way to break this cycle. Indeed, only 50 percent of 18-29 year-olds voted in the 2020 U.S. presidential election, an 11 percent increase from 2016, but still much lower than the 80 percent of voters those the age of 60 who cast a ballot. While youth turnout in Germany’s recent elections was greater than 60 percent, it still lags behind that of older generations. Given the fact that so many young people do not vote, it is reasonable to argue that governments should focus on efforts to motivate existing young voters to participate at higher rates.

The reality, however, is that 18 may be an imperfect first voting age, especially for elections at the local level. In Europe and the United States, 18-year-olds are often either entering university or the workforce, and not necessarily thinking about voting. Various countries and cities that have lowered the voting age to 16 are already witnessing higher turnout rates. For example, since lowering its voting age to 16 in 2008, Austria has seen higher engagement from 16-17year-old first-time voters than 18-21 year-old ones.

If young people are able to cast a ballot when they are 16 and still in secondary school and residing in their hometowns, there is an opportunity to instill voting as a civic habit.

This expanded youth turnout can lead to long-term benefits for democratic participation. Studies have indicated that voting in one election can increase the probability that an individual will vote in the next election by 25 percent. If young people are able to cast a ballot when they are 16 and still in secondary school and residing in their hometowns, there is an opportunity to instill voting as a civic habit.

Lowering the voting age can also strengthen the call for civic education. When Austria lowered its voting age to 16, it pursued numerous reforms to engage its youngest generations, including elevating the importance of civic education in schools. The city of Vienna recently announced that it will spend €1 million on youth participation and the civic education of young people starting at the kindergarten level. At a time when schools throughout the United States and Europe are looking to reinvest in efforts focused on teaching young people about government, lowering the voting age to 16 can incentivize schools to engage students in real conversations about governing and politics.

Finally, lowering the voting age gives young people a real stake in the process. As parts of the world begin to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic, it is evident that it has had a deep impact on young people. A recent study surveyed over 10,000 young people from around the world and found that 75 percent of them called the future “frightening,” with 83 percent blaming governments for failing to take care of the planet. Only 21 percent of U.S. youth said they could trust the government, the lowest percentage of any country. These alarming statistics demonstrate a societal opportunity to ensure that young people are at the table as societies look to construct a new normal.

Compelling Evidence

Cities have demonstrated that lowering the voting age to 16 can work. Evidence from Norway, where 30 municipalities have used a 16-year-old voting age for local elections on a trial basis demonstrates that 16-17 year-old turnout was much higher than that among traditional first-time voters aged 18-24. Similarly, four cities in Maryland in the United States have lowered their voting age to 16 in the last decade. In Takoma Park, Maryland, the first U.S. city to lower the voting age, registered 16-17 year-olds have voted at twice the rates of 18-24 year-olds.

In Germany, 11 of 16 states have already lowered the voting age in local elections, including the city-states of Bremen and Hamburg. The initial success of youth participation in these places helped to spur political parties to adopt lowering the voting age in their official platform.

Following local city experimentation, countries like Austria and Malta have introduced the initiative at the national level. Germany seems likely to follow suit, a major step that will dramatically propel the movement forward. Cities instigated a reform that may prove to be a vital tool in a wider arsenal necessary to revitalize youth democratic participation around the world.

Scott Warren and Tobias Spöri are visiting fellows with the German Marshall Fund. GMF Cities, with the support of Germany’s Federal Foreign Office, is leading a two-year, transatlantic multicity cohort to explore and advance city practices in strengthening democracy. The Cities Fortifying Democracy project examines city innovations in governing, voting, and elections, public safety and justice, and local journalism.

Cities Fortifying Democracy

The German Marshall Fund's Cities Fortifying Democracy project is a first-of-its-kind cohort of American and European cities that will come together in teams to collaborate on what cities are and can be doing to strengthen the foundation of democracy from the ground up.