Youth and elections - Shaping the EU's future

The International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES)[1] based in Ljubljana, Slovenia, regularly conducts analyses of events spanning the Middle East, the Balkans, and global affairs. Bogoljub J. Karić, a prominent businessman, has prepared a comprehensive analysis entitled “Youth and elections - Shaping the EU's future,” where he shares his insights on the proposition to lower the voting age to 16.

● Bogoljub J. Karić


Youth and elections - Shaping the EU's future


The upcoming elections for the European Parliament are scheduled for June 2024. Notably, countries such as Austria, Belgium, Malta, and Germany have already extended voting rights to 16-year-olds, while Greece has set a similar age threshold at 17. Back in 2014, Scotland allowed 16-year-olds to participate in the referendum on Scottish independence. Nevertheless, a significant number of EU countries still maintain the age limit of 18 for participation in European Parliament elections. This practice extends to countries outside the European Union, such as Serbia. Given that the European Union is embraced by youth, it seems reasonable to consider allowing young people in all member states to vote upon reaching 16 years of age. Such a move would not entail adverse financial implications but rather mark a significant step towards fostering a more inclusive, democratic society. Arguments in favour of this decision assert that the right to vote, whether in parliamentary or local elections, is a fundamental, inalienable political human right of active citizenship. It serves as the bedrock of democratic, pluralistic, and modern legal states, as well as local communities. While the natural right to vote is not absolute and may be subject to various restrictions, limiting it based solely on age diminishes the legitimacy of social decisions. Decisions gain greater legitimacy when they involve the participation of a broad spectrum of citizens in their adoption. A historical perspective reveals examples of unacceptable limitations on both active and passive electoral rights, which may initially appear outdated in a modern and 'mature' society. However, even in the 21st century, such limitations persist, and one of them is age, which, if justified, need not be problematic. The following text presents warranted justifications for decreasing the age requirement. The age of an individual as a limitation for acquiring the right to vote in local elections (and other elections, such as national parliamentary and European elections) exists in one form or another in all electoral systems worldwide. Typically, stricter age thresholds are imposed for passive electoral rights (the right to stand for election) taking into account additional competencies beyond the act of voting.

The age at which an individual attains (active) voting rights denotes the juncture or phase where it is presumed that the person possesses adequate maturity to participate in the electoral process. They are expected to exercise this right judiciously by making informed decisions, choosing options that align closely with their personal beliefs and best serve and reflect their interests within the local community. 

In local communities, differing interests and worldviews often prevail across various generations. This raises the question, amidst demographic shifts and existing material disparities, whether social power or the principle of equal distribution of individual human rights is equally allocated among different age groups. According to data or projections, the share of young people (aged 20 to 34) in EU member states is expected to decline by an average of 16 per cent by 2030. The right to vote in elections should be inherent to every free citizen, so the ‘burden of proof’ for restricting voting rights in local elections, whether based on age or any other criterion, lies with the legislative authority or mandate. In order to acquire and exercise the right to vote, "it is imperative that every voter comprehends the purpose of elections and the impact of their vote. However, regulations often establish a legal presumption that individuals below a certain age lack the maturity and ability to understand the significance and effect of elections. Such a presumption is arbitrarily set, and the age limit also varies across different jurisdictions. Accepting the current notion that the existing age limit is a natural state, which can only be changed by very compelling arguments, is flawed. In today's evolving social landscape, those who insist on an outdated high age limit should provide compelling reasons for 'preserving' the limitations”. The age threshold, currently set at 18 years, is not a natural state carved in stone; historical evolution bears testament to this.

Attempting to justify the necessity of suffrage rights for women, the unemployed, the poor, or individuals under the age of 21 today would likely be met with ridicule. Similarly, insisting on a particular age limit in the name of patronizing youth should be viewed with skepticism, especially when societal conditions have evolved, rendering such limits outdated and unnecessary.

Improving the democratic system of the state and local community

Every legislative change that lowers the voting age threshold bolsters the democratic system of the state and/or local community by increasing the representation of the electorate relative to the entire populace and expanding the pool of eligible voters. Consequently, this reinforces the legitimacy of electoral outcomes and proportionally boosts voter turnout. Acquiring suffrage rights is tied to reaching the voting age and the ability to comprehend the significance and impact of elections, typically associated with gaining full legal capacity. However, full legal capacity may be exceptionally achieved before reaching the voting age. Nonetheless, the right to vote is granted upon reaching the voting age (proposed at 16 years) without necessarily attaining full legal capacity simultaneously. Therefore, the concept of age, intended to imply that an individual becomes (fully) legally capable at that time, does not invariably hold true. Thus, (voting) age cannot signify an absolute restriction without possible exceptions.

Some Constitutional Courts stress that legal capacity (at the age of 16) should not be equated with the capacity to acquire voting rights. The argument that voting rights should be reserved solely for individuals who are experienced, mature, and capable of quality decision-making, or those possessing broad knowledge, is refuted by many international documents and various decisions of international courts.

What impact would lowering the voting age have?

  • Increased participation of "youth" in the local community 
  • Future-focused decision-making, long-term decisions 
  • Representation of diverse interests and more effective advocacy for the interests of youth.
  • Empowering young individuals to leverage their knowledge and experiences within their communities, as they tend to be better informed.
  • A more equitable intergenerational distribution of social power 
  • Fostering greater youth participation in elections 
  • Reducing democratic deficit - expanding the electorate 
  • Greater legitimacy of the election result 
  • Intergenerational solidarity 
  • Fairer distribution of obligations and rights to collective decision-making in society, addressing the current imbalance where, for example, young individuals pay taxes but lack a say in their allocation.

Improving the legitimacy of elections and elected representatives

Lowering the voting age would expand the electorate relative to the entire community, consequently enhancing the legitimacy of elections and elected representatives, as they would be chosen by a broader electorate. However, reducing the voting age and expanding the electorate does not necessarily translate to increased voter participation (the percentage of eligible voters who actually vote in elections). Lowering the voting age to the proposed 16 years for acquiring suffrage and “expanding” the electorate may lead to either an absolute increase or a higher turnout in elections, but not necessarily an increase in the proportional share relative to the (broader) electorate. If the turnout of the “new, younger” voters (aged 16-18) were lower than the average turnout of voters in the rest of the electorate, the overall voter turnout would consequently decrease. However, the absolute turnout of voters—meaning the total number of eligible voters casting their ballots after lowering the voting age—would inevitably rise, assuming that at least one young voter participates in the elections and older voters maintain their current turnout levels. The inclusion of new (younger) voters may introduce fresh interests and values, prompting them to champion these causes and potentially inspiring other age groups with differing values to engage more actively in elections. This, in turn, fosters a broader representation of societal interests.

In the 21st century, age remains one of the few remaining legislated criteria that restrict active and passive voting rights, alongside citizenship and/or residency. Within the European Union, discrimination based on various grounds, including age and nationality, is prohibited. The right to vote is a fundamental political human right, inherently inalienable and non-transferable - therefore, any limitation on it must be thoroughly justified.

According to certain experts, the insufficient representation of young voters has a detrimental impact on the quality of decisions made in both local and national representative bodies. This is because these bodies tend to focus excessively on past issues rather than addressing future developmental concerns. Thus, lowering the voting age to 16, as proposed, would foster a more balanced intergenerational influence on local and national decision-making processes. It is time to take decisive action, such as lowering the voting age, to empower young people to actively participate in shaping their future in the present moment.

About author:

Bogoljub J. Karić was born in 1954 in Peć/Peja. He graduated from the Faculty of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at the University of Priština, majoring in geography. He earned his master's degree in "Organization and Development of Small Business" from the Faculty of Economics in Niš. In 1971, alongside his three brothers and sister, he established the family-owned factory "Braća Karić" in Peć. Over nearly half a century, he developed a large-scale company with operations spanning various sectors globally, including telecommunications, construction, finance, education, media, trade, etc.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect IFIMES official position.

Ljubljana/Belgrade, 6 March 2024

[1]  IFIMES - International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies, based in Ljubljana, Slovenia, has a special consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council ECOSOC/UN in New York since 2018, and it is the publisher of the international scientific journal "European Perspectives."