Archive for Friday, September 26, 2008

Vote at 16: Austria gets them while they’re young

September 26, 2008

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— Nina Stanke is too young to drive, but for her 16th birthday, she's getting the right to vote.

At a time when Barack Obama's presidential bid is energizing America's young voters and an expert in Britain is saying even children should be enfranchised, Austria has become the first European Union country to lower the voting age in national elections to 16.

Driving the change is demographics: As the birthrate falls, seniors are beginning to dominate the electorate. A law lowering the age limit from 18 passed in 2007, and Sunday's parliamentary election will be young teens' first opportunity to vote nationwide.

A few other nations allow voting at 16, including Brazil, Cuba, Nicaragua as well as the Isle of Man and Jersey, offshore British dependencies. Sixteen-year-olds in Austria as well as neighboring Germany already have been able to vote in some local elections.

High-school voters

Nina, who turned 16 just this week, is one of up to 200,000 eligible under-17s - and she's not about to pass up the opportunity to mark her Sweet Sixteen birthday by making her mark at the ballot box.

"Yes! I'm going to vote!" she said, speaking outside her Vienna high school.

But many outside this country of 8 million don't share her enthusiasm.

Gerald Hyman, a governance expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, thinks it's absurd.

"Sixteen-year-old kids are worried about whether they're going to get their driver's licenses," he said Thursday. "Do you consider them mature citizens? Citizens who are going to make up their minds about policy?"

Others insist that teens are a valid constituency and deserve a voice.

Proponents point out that in Austria, 16-year-olds can purchase and drink beer and wine, even though they can't drive or perform national military or community service until 18.

A case in point: Finland - stricken by a deadly school shooting this week - restricts the vote to 18-year-olds, even though it lets 15-year-olds own firearms for hunting.

Even toddlers?

Stein Ringen, a professor of sociology and social policy at Green College, a graduate college of Britain's Oxford University, believes even toddlers should count.

"For those children who cannot vote themselves, the mother should be the custodian of the vote," Ringen said. "Children should have more sway in public policy ... 16-year-olds are knowledgeable enough to vote. There is no reason for any anxiety about giving them that authority."

Dzamila Stehlikova, the Czech Republic's human rights minister, says 16-year-olds should have the right to be heard at least in local elections. It would lower the crime rate, "and above all, the youth will feel that they belong to society," she said.

Providing balance

Austria, like most EU countries, has low birthrates. Last year, the number of Austrians aged 65 and older exceeded the population aged 15 and under. "Giving the 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote just helped maintain the balance between the generations," said Christoph Hofinger, co-director of the SORA Institute for Social Research and Analysis.

It also makes the young newcomers a target in a tight race between the center-left Social Democrats and the center-right People's Party.

"During this election, it could be decisive ... every vote counts," said Laura Rudas, 27, a Social Democrat who believes it's her role to show young people that "politics can change the world."

Wishful thinking, says Ferdinand Karlhofer, head of the University of Innsbruck's political science department. Sunday's elections are "going to be decided by people over the age of 50."

New electorate

In Malta, the leader of the Mediterranean island's Labor Party sees an argument for teen voting rights.

"Politicians would have to face up to new challenges and become more accountable when faced with a new media-savvy, demanding and enterprising electorate," Joseph Muscat wrote in a commentary.

The U.S. lowered the minimum age from 21 to 18 after the Vietnam War, when lawmakers conceded "if you're old enough to be drafted and to fight, you're old enough to vote," Hyman said.

But 16, he contends, goes too far.

"Why not 12-year-olds?" Hyman said.

"I don't think most 16-year-olds know about - or care about - whether we should have a lower deficit," he said. "A vote belongs to a citizen who is going to engage in what should be an adult conversation about where the country is going."

Comments

Confrontation 6 years, 10 months ago

This is scary. Most of these kids would just vote the same as their parents. Repubs would want this, considering the brain isn't fully developed at 16, and those with less intelligence are more likely to vote for a Repub.

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