Minimum age for voting

REPORT(1)

Doc. 7724
9 January 1997

Rapporteur: Mr René KOLLWELTER, Luxembourg, Socialist Group


Summary

Various Council of Europe bodies have had occasion to discuss the issue of lowering the minimum age for voting. To extend and reinforce democracy in our countries and bring younger voters into the electorate, to give young people new rights and in particular new responsibilities and in order to make them fully fledged citizens, it is proposed:

I. Draft recommendation

1.The Assembly has on various occasions discussed the issue of lowering the minimum age for voting, notably in Recommendation 1286 (1996) on a European strategy for children and in Order No. 523 (1996) on the situation of young people in Europe: marginalised youth.

2.Various other initiatives have dealt with this issue, both at Council of Europe level and at national level in some member states. Indeed, in Europe, the minimum age for voting has continually been reduced over recent decades; in some places it has even been brought below the age of civil majority. Nevertheless, it still varies considerably.

3.Recalling the numerous initiatives that exist to promote the participation of young people, whether by means of specific institutions or by means of the co-management system (and by Recommendation 1019 (1985) on the participation of young people in political and institutional life), the Assembly stresses the need to prepare young people for their participation in democratic life and emphasises:

  1. the paramount importance which the difficult period of adolescence has for the future citizen;

  2. that the young person is already an important member of society without necessarily being a fully fledged citizen;

  3. that a better participation in voting will help to make young people more aware of their responsibility for defining their position and role in society, and that it is essential that they be given new responsibilities along with new rights;

  4. that better civics education must be provided by education systems to enable future, fully fledged citizens to avail themselves fully of their new rights;

  5. that schools can already constitute a model for democratic participation if pupils are involved in the decision-making process.

4.Particular emphasis must also be placed on:

  1. a view of society in which young people have a stronger position and in which they are fully integrated despite the sociological changes taking place;

  2. the very principles of democracy, which call for the participation of the largest possible number of people in policy-making and in politics in the noble sense of the word;

  3. the constant concern of all democrats to extend and improve the democratic functioning of our societies;

  4. the possibility of bringing new blood into the electorate and thus giving greater expression to the concerns of the younger generation;

  5. the desire to increase young people's interest in public affairs and the common good and to see them become fully involved in society's future at the dawn of the twenty-first century;

  6. the importance of effectively combating the growing danger of the exclusion of young people and the concern to do everything possible to facilitate their integration into the structures of society.

5.The recent introduction of provisions granting citizens of the European Union the right to vote in local and European elections in their country of residence, another measure to extend democracy, has similar aims.

6.The Assembly therefore calls on the Committee of Ministers to recommend that member states adopt the following course of action:

  1. rapidly harmonise the age for the right to vote and stand for election at 18 years in all countries and for all elections;

  2. create the necessary preconditions for the participation of young people in civic life through education and the promotion of community involvement.

II. Explanatory memorandum by Mr René KOLLWELTER

1. Background

1.1.Work by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe

In December 1995, the Social, Health and Family Affairs Committee adopted a report on a European strategy for children (Doc. 7436). In this document, the rapporteur, Mr Cox, advocates implementing children's rights as recognised in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and recommends "considering and defending children's interests as citizens of today's and tomorrow's society".

The committee report also made the following points:

"Adults have long tended to see children as isolated beings still undergoing development (a not-yet-human being) who only had needs. Today, a new view of the child is emerging. Children are human beings with their own rights and responsibilities, and want to be able to take an active part in family and social life.

(...)

Children are one of the largest groups of society. But, unlike other groups (for example the elderly) they do not form a lobby and, as they are not entitled to vote, few politicians take up their interests in the competition for resources. Children are usually absent from political life and, in particular, are forgotten when it comes to decisions on allocating funds. It can be said that at every level of the decision-making process, they are rarely represented."

These considerations led the Assembly to adopt Recommendation 1286 calling on the Committee of Ministers to urge member states "to teach children how to act as responsible citizens, to encourage them to take an interest in public affairs and to reconsider the age at which young people can vote".

At more or less the same time, a group of parliamentarians tabled a motion for a recommendation on the minimum age for voting (Doc. 7456). Following this initiative, the Bureau of the Assembly referred the matter to the Committee on Culture and Education.

In June 1996, the Assembly adopted Order No. 523 on the situation of young people in Europe, following a report submitted by Mr Elo, in which it made the following point: "key areas for policy discussion at national level are such as whether or how to (...) lower the minimum age for voting".

In the same order, the Assembly stressed "the importance of the participation of young people in institutional and political life. This remains essential for the survival of the democratic system".

The points and proposals set out in the present report are along the same lines as the Assembly's past work and thus constitute a logical continuation of the efforts already made.

1.2.Other previous work

Various recent initiatives or proposals have led the Committee on Culture and Education and its Sub-Committee on Youth and Sport to intensify their work on the minimum age for voting.

In Lower Saxony, municipal elections recently took place in which young people aged 16 and 17 were entitled to vote. The Länder of Schleswig-Holstein and the Saarland intend using a similar procedure. Recently, the Prime Minister of France spoke in favour of lowering the right to vote to 18 years for national elections. There are numerous parliamentary initiatives or bills along similar lines in various countries.

2. New rights and, in particular, new responsibilities

2.1.What sort of young people in what sort of society?

For the purposes of this report and the issues it addresses, youth can be defined as the time of life when an individual passes from the stage of dependence to that of independence. It may involve leaving school, taking up employment or moving away from home. The transition from one stage of life to another is a period of great instability; young people must try to find their place in society and their identity and independence at the social, financial and emotional level. It is a very difficult time and thus critical for young people's integration into or, in some cases, exclusion from society. This transition, which in general takes place between the ages of 15 and 25, can take very different forms.

In this period of time, during which the future of young people is often irreversibly shaped, it is clear that even if they are not considered as fully fledged citizens, they do exercise real responsibilities: in military service, employment or trade-union activities, involvement in a political party or an NGO, learning to drive, getting married and having children, shouldering family responsibilities, paying taxes and being a consumer; being, in other words, a fully fledged economic operator.

It hardly needs pointing out here that the co-management and co-decision system, applied systematically with youth organisations at European and often at national level, has constituted and continues to constitute a highly rewarding experience for the Council of Europe.

2.2.Protagonist and citizen

Young people are protagonists in present-day society, to which, as we have seen, they make their own contribution. They are tomorrow's adults, but are already _ with certain restrictions _ today's citizens. Often, young people work to perpetuate society and their contribution is not only biological; they also help maintain social organisation and pass on cultural values. If society wants these values to be passed on rather than challenged or even cast aside completely, it has an undeniable interest _ and not just an economic one _ in investing in the next generation. Their lack of more systematic participation in society exacerbates their vulnerability and only serves to increase the state's responsibility towards them.

Our societies have weighed down the next generation with various burdens, in particular heavy debts, the destruction and pollution of the environment and conflicts arising from racism and intolerance. Talking about the rights and responsibilities of young people also means considering the kind of society they will inherit and a view of future society.

Changes in the family model have certainly made young people more mature, less dependent and more open to the world. Young people today grow up quickly, more quickly, perhaps, than did previous generations, according to experts on childhood _ even if what they have is greater independence rather than true social autonomy.

Young people today _ more open to the outside world, less protected than the parents themselves, who spare them neither relationship problems nor job-related worries _ can no longer be viewed according to the traditional criteria. The age of reason, no doubt lower than before, retains its highly subjective character.

We must not underestimate the changes taking place in contemporary societies and affecting young people in particular, both in the West and in the East. Institutions and traditional values are being called into question, as noted by the Parliamentary Assembly in June 1996 (see Order No. 523). The family is no longer the stabilising influence it was a few generations ago. The traditional roles of men and women have changed considerably. Authority is being challenged within the family, at school, in religion and in institutional life, and the lack of recognised and respected authority is at the root of many trends such as violence and crime, marginalisation and exclusion.

2.3.What form of participation in what form of democracy?

Lowering the voting age will not, of course, solve all society's problems; all other forms of participation and co-management must be developed as well, at local, regional and national levels. Assemblies of young elected representatives, whether at school or in companies, together with the institutional means enabling them to make full use of these participation tools, are being experimented with in various places and should receive close attention. But these experiments, while useful, often do not have real power or implementation possibilities, are of limited duration and have restricted budgetary or institutional resources.

Since, according to the generally accepted definition, democracy means inter alia the participation of the greatest number in the exercise of power, true democrats have always been concerned to improve democracy and enlarge its circle of "beneficiaries". This was the case when the system of suffrage based on property ownership was abolished and the general right to vote was introduced _ with restrictions, initially at least, in respect of sex, nationality and age.

It hardly needs to be pointed out here that in some countries, women only gained the right to vote after the second world war, and that in others _ long-standing and eminent members of the Council of Europe _ this right was only gained in the early 1960s.

Then there is the true democratic revolution, which, for citizens of the European Union, consists in the right to vote and stand for election in local and European elections in their country of residence in the European Union.

2.4.Making the electorate younger and integrating young people

The age pyramid of our societies is actually an inverted pyramid. Our societies are made up mainly of old people, that is to say there is a very high percentage of retired people. It is thus not surprising that in various countries the average age of voters is around 55 years. This explains why the electorate is often more concerned about existing situations than about sharing and solidarity between generations, undoubtedly necessary in the medium or even long term.

Our democracies need new blood. At a time when sovereignty must be shared by the greatest number, citizenship must take on its full meaning; our countries must gain more voters who are young and interested enough to express medium-term concerns. The taboo must be broken whereby only people who have reached adulthood as laid down in the civil code have the right to vote; this right must be extended _ as has been done in certain countries _ to people who are preparing to enter fully a world which increasingly tends to reject them.

To combat effectively the growing danger of young people's exclusion, every effort must be made to integrate them more fully into society. Lowering the voting age can constitute one measure among several to achieve this aim. This is all the more true since young people themselves must become innovators and agents of social change once they participate more fully in political choices concerning education, vocational training, employment, quality of life, the environment, cultural life and so on.

Voices are currently being raised on all sides to deplore young people's (and often adults') lack of interest in public affairs, the common good and politics in the noble sense of the word. Lowering the minimum age for voting should enable those interested and those who feel particularly concerned to become fully involved and to have, at an early stage, the means to be full citizens. So that this is not a constraint on young people, the vote should be optional up to 18 in countries where voting is mandatory.

Detractors of this recommendation to lower the voting age will no doubt put forward the usual argument as to young people's immaturity and inexperience in dealing with the problems that confront them in society. It goes without saying that this argument _ supposing it to be true _ would be an insult to any form of civics education in our education system. Schools will clearly have to adapt to this new situation and ensure that young people are better prepared to take up this new challenge in better conditions. A general reform of civics education is thus essential in most European countries and should, where appropriate, be the subject of special attention by the Council of Europe.

3. The present situation in European countries

 

Age of civil majority

Voting rights

 

National level

Regional level

Local level

COUNTRIES

House of Deputies

Senate

Right to vote

Age to stand for election

Right to vote

Age to stand for election

 

Right to vote

Age to stand for election

Right to vote

Age to stand for election

Albania

18

18

18

/

/

18

18

18

18

Andorra

                 

Austria

18

18

21

/

/

18

21

18

21

Republic of Belarus

18

18

21

/

/

18

21

18

21

Belgium

18

18

18

18

25 ?

18

18

18

18

Bosnia and Herzegovina

18

18

18

/

/

18

18

18

18

Bulgaria

18

18

18

18

18

18

18

18

18

Croatia

18

18

18

/

/

18

18

18

18

Cyprus

18

18

21

/

/

/

/

18

21

Czech Republic

18

18

21

/

/

18

18

18

18

Denmark

18

18

18

/

/

18

18

18

18

Estonia

18

18

21

/

/

18

18

18

18

Finland

18

18

18

/

/

/

/

18

18

France

18

18

23

18

35

18

21

18

23

Germany

18

18

18

/

/

18

18

18

18

Greece

18

18

/

/

/

18

/

18

/

Holy See

/

/

/

/

/

/

/

/

/

Hungary

18

18

18

/

/

18

18

18

18

Iceland

/

18

/

/

/

18

/

18

/

Ireland

18

18

21

18

21

18

21

18

21

Italy

18

18

22

25

40

18

21

18

18

Latvia

18

18

21

/

/

18

18

18

18

Liechtenstein

                 

Lithuania

18

18

21

/

/

/

/

18

18

Luxembourg

18

18

21

/

Conseil d'Etat 30

/

/

18

21

Malta

18

18

18

/

/

/

/

18

18

Moldova

18

18

21

18

21

18

21

18

21

Monaco

                 

Netherlands

18

18

21

18

21

18

21

18

21

Norway

18

18

18

/

/

18

18

18

18

Poland

18

18

21

18

21

18

18

18

18

Portugal

18

18

18

/

/

18

18

18

18

Romania

18

18

23

18

35

18

23

18

23

Russia

18

18

21

18

21

18

21

18

21

San Marino

18

18

18

/

/

/

/

18

18

Slovak Republic

18

18

21

/

/

18

21

18

21

Slovenia

18

18

18

/

/

/

/

18

18

Spain

18

18

18

18

18

18

18

18

18

Sweden

18

18

18

/

/

18

18

18

18

Switzerland

18

18

18

18

18

18

?

18

?

"The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia"

18

18

18

/

/

/

/

18

18

Turkey

18

18

30

/

/

18

/

18

/

Ukraine

18

18

21

18

21

18

21

18

21

United Kingdom

18

18

21

 

(21)

   

18

21

Comments

Looking briefly at these tables, it is interesting to note first of all that the age of civil majority is 18 years in all member countries of the Council of Europe.

The general minimum age for the right to vote is 18, except in the case of elections for the Italian Senate.

A number of disparities can be seen between the right to stand for election and the current situation regarding the right to vote. In most countries, the minimum age for the former is always over 18 and usually 21 years.

There are a small number of countries in which the minimum age to stand for election is particularly high, being well over 21 years.

With the exception of various Länder in Germany, there is at present no country where the minimum age for voting is below 18 years.

4. Conclusions and proposals

4.1.The gradual lowering of the minimum age for voting gives young people new rights, but also _ first and foremost _ new responsibilities. This should constitute a challenge for everybody: older people must prove that they are ready to give young people a bigger role in the difficult world of tomorrow; young people must demonstrate that they are not only interested, but also able to make a contribution and shoulder their new responsibilities in defining and establishing tomorrow's society, which they in particular will inherit.

The Rapporteur therefore wishes to stress his belief that giving young people new responsibilities and making them more aware of these responsibilities is at least as important as giving them new rights.

4.2.In various presentation brochures, the Council of Europe affirms that most Europeans today subscribe to certain fundamental values: freedom of the individual, democracy, openness to the world, the rejection of violence and so on. For these values to form the basis of tomorrow's Europe, young people must become involved and their creative imagination must be called on to develop these ideas.

The Council of Europe is thus working to:

4.3.    In the light of the foregoing, the Rapporteur proposes two phases of action:

1.Firstly, rapid harmonisation of the right to vote and the right to stand for election at age 18 in all countries and for all elections;

2.Secondly, within a period of next ten years,

a.lowering of the minimum age for the right to vote and stand for election to 16 years for regional or local elections,

b.lowering of the minimum age for voting to 17 for national and European elections.

However, all of this depends first of all on appropriate civics education and community involvement for young people.


Reporting committee: Committee on Culture and Education

Budgetary implications for the Assembly: None.

Reference to committee: Doc. 7456 and Ref. No 2065 of 20 March 1996

Draft recommendation: adopted by the committee with 3 votes against and 6 abstentions on 16 December 1996.

Members of the committee: Sir Russell Johnston, (Chairman), MM. Berg, de Puig (Vice-Chairmen), Arnason, Asciak, Banks (Alternate: Sir Keith Speed), Bartumeu Cassany, Bauer, Baumel, Berti, Mrs Bielikova, MM. Cem, Corrao, De Decker (Alternate: Staes), Decagny, Diaz de Mera (Alternate: Varela), Domljan, Dovgan, Mrs Fleeetwood, MM. Gellért Kis, Mrs Groenver, Baroness Hooper, Mrs Isohookana-Asunmaa, Mrs Katseli, MM. Kirsteins, Kollwelter, Koucky, Kriedner, Kyprianou, Legendre, Leoni, Malachowski, Mrs Maximus, MM. Melnikov, Melo, Mrs Mihaylova, MM. Mocanu, Mocioi, Mrs Naoumova, MM. Paunescu, Pereira Marques, Polydoras, Probst, Prokop, Ragno, Rhinow (Alternate: Mrs Fehr), Roseta, Mrs Schicker, MM. Siwiec, Skolc, Sudarenkov, Szakàl, Tanik, Mrs Terborg, Mr Vangelov, Mrs Veidemann, Mr Verbeek, Mrs Vermot-Mangold (Alternate: Caccia), Mrs Verspaget, MM. Vogt, Walsh, Ms Wärnersson, MM Yaroshynsky (Alternate: Kapustyan), Zingeris.

NB: The names of those who were present at the meeting are in italics.

Secretaries to the committee: MM. Grayson and Ary


Note: 1By the Committee on Culture and Education