POLITICS affects us all, but currently not all of us can affect politics.
The recent legislative moves to allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote aim to change this.
The usual argument against lowering the voting age seems to be that 16-year-olds are simply too immature and ill informed to be granted the right to vote. However, through my experience in youth activism, I’ve worked with teenagers who have presented to cabinet members, who have organised worldwide protests, and who have published reports in conjecture with the ESRI.
These 16 and 17 year olds are far more politically engaged than the average adult.
At 16 years old you can pay taxes, consent to medical treatment, begin to work and finish school, yet you are forbidden from participating in the most fundamental democratic institutions: voting for your leaders.
From student council members to the national executive staff of the Irish Second Level Students Union, 16-years-olds are integral to the political fabric of this country.
Well, almost integral, despite the fact that politically involved teenagers tirelessly work to improve our society, we refuse to let them vote. By doing this we deny them the political representation they deserve and effectively attempt to silence their voices.
Of course, there are some teenagers who have no interest in governmental affairs and this is understandable.
Why on earth should they care about the leaders they didn’t choose? About the policies they didn’t vote for? If we want our young people to become active citizens, it is imperative we let them vote.
Moreover, The culture pervaded by partisan politics and democracy as a whole means that elected officials cater to those who can vote. This makes sense if you don’t get the votes, you don’t get a chance to change anything. Unfortunately, this results in the needs of people who cannot vote being ignored.
The vast majority of 16 and 17 year olds are seen by politicians as little more than a photo opportunity.
These teenagers have minds of their own and ideas of how to improve the country. Yet, until they are given the right to vote they will never be taken seriously.
Much of the issues that affect young people are decided by those who are far older than them. Take education for example, in 2018 Ireland spent only 3.5% of its GDP on education, the second lowest in the OECD. The government is able to invest so poorly in students because the vast majority cannot vote and therefore have very little political capital.
I worked on the ISSU’s 2021 Senior Cycle reform survey and report. We received responses from thousands of teenagers who were astutely able to spot the flaws in the Senior Cycle System and how they could be improved. Yet, because 16 and 17 year olds lack the right to vote, their proposals and opinions are continually ignored.
The future leaders of this country are 16 right now. However, if we continue to deny 16 years olds the right to vote, they will simply become disinterested in politics. This severely limits the pool of potential candidates for election and could lead to the eventual breakdown of our democratic system.
Ireland’s voter turnout rates are dropping, especially in European elections. It’s incredibly frustrating to see adults squandering their chance to make a difference in their society when adolescents would love to to have this opportunity. Those aged 16 and 17 have a higher voter turnout rate than any other generation, with 75% voting and 97% saying they would vote in future elections. The patterns formed at age 16 will continue into the future. By allowing adolescents to vote we are creating a generation of active citizens. This will allow Irish democracy to thrive.
I have spent this article so far praising young people. However I’m not going to sit here and tell you that all 16 and 17 year olds are highly politically aware and will use their vote maturely and responsibly. But let’s be honest, there are a fair few adults that don’t use their vote wisely either. In every election, some spoil their ballots or cast their votes for joke candidates. It’s incorrect to argue that 16 year olds cannot be given the right to vote because they would use it irresponsibly when legal adults are exhibiting theat very behaviours.
If we are to create a generation of politically aware and active citizens we can’t stop at granting 16 year olds the right to vote.
We also need to seriously improve the level of political education in secondary schools. Junior Cycle CSPE is seen as little more than a joke.
The Leaving Cert equivalent: politics and society is not available to all students. 16 year olds deserve not just the right to vote but also the knowledge on how to vote in a politically astute manner.
ABOUT THE ISSU
The Irish Second-Level Students’ Union (ISSU) is the national representative body for second-level school students in the Republic of Ireland.
The ISSU works towards an education system in which the views, opinions and contributions of students are respected and in which students are recognised as an official partner in creating an education that is centered around and caters best for students.