Lawmakers in Malta unanimously decided this month to lower the voting age in general and European Parliament elections from 18 to 16. All 64 members of the Maltese parliament voted in favor of the legislation, making the small island nation the second country in the EU to pass such a law. Austria, in 2007, became the first EU member state to adopt a voting age of 16 for most elections.
Malta’s move comes on the heels of legislation passed by its parliament in 2014 that allowed 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in local council elections. According to the Electoral Commission, more than 62 percent of the additional 4,485 young people who were allowed to vote cast a ballot. The outcome altered the prevalent impression that 16-year-olds would not show up at the polls.
The new law will add around 8,500 new voters in a country with a population of about 437,000. Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, in reaction to the law’s passage, tweeted, “We have made history.”
Cyprus’ National Youth Council commended the legislation as being in the spirit of democracy, given the “old democratic principle which states that there should not be any taxation without representation.” The Council reasoned that since young adults are allowed to work in Malta the age of 16 and, thus, liable to pay taxes, that voting privileges seemed only fair.
The EU’s Party of European Socialists (PES) also praised the move. “It is important to fight voter abstention and strengthen the engagement of young people in politics, and removing the bar on 16 to 17-year-olds was identified by a PES working group in 2017 as one important way to do this,” said president Sergei Stanishev. “This is progressive politics in action: making the democratic process more inclusive, strengthening the rights of young people, and putting our trust in voters.”
Voter turnout at Malta’s 2017 general elections dropped by just one percent from 93% to 92% compared to 2013, in a nation with historically high voter turnout levels. But the trend of increasingly lower turnout is much more apparent across the EU, a region that has historically boasted relatively high levels of voters compared to the rest of the world. According to analysis by the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), both established European democracies and post-communist countries have seen significant voter declines over the last couple of decades. In established democracies, average voter turnout for legislative elections in Europe dropped from around 83 percent in the 1950s to just over 70 percent in 2011-2015. For post-communist democracies, voter turnout went from about 78 percent in the 1980s to less than 60 percent in 2011-2015.
Research on voter turnout rates shows a variety of complex factors are involved in explaining why people are not heading to the polls for democratic elections. An overarching theme is decreasing confidence in the democratic process and, thus, falling levels of trust in governments across the democratic world.
Some are placing hope in young people to reverse this trend – and as Malta’s local council elections show, this hope may not be misplaced. However, there is no still concrete evidence to conclude that young people across the board are inclined to vote and, thus, will raise voter turnout rates. In fact, much data shows the opposite: young people, along with women, tend to vote less.
For Austria, the results have been mixed since the country lowered the voting age to 16 in 2007. Voter turnout for EU Parliament elections decreased in 2009, compared to 2004, and again in 2014, according to IDEA. In Austria’s presidential elections, there was a significant decrease in turnout from 2004 to 2010 (from 71.6 percent to 53.57 percent) – although turnout picked back up in 2016. In parliamentary elections, the numbers are a bit more optimistic: turnout increased slightly in 2008 and 2017, though there was a decrease in 2013.
There is additional concern that allowing 16-year-olds to vote will do more harm than good, given the relative lack of education to ensure informed decision-making in younger age groups. Malta’s Unversity Students Council said the current system of education did not provide youth with enough preparation to be able to vote. Plus, they and others have pointed out that the minimum age to run in an election remains 18.
The Malta Youth Council (KNZ), while supporting the lowered voting age, emphasised the need for both formal and informal methods of education to increase knowledge-based civic education. KNZ also noted a number of anomalies in Maltese law, including the fact that 18 is the age of sexual consent, as well as the age at which “youths are encouraged to become active citizens and involve themselves in voluntary organisation,” whilst organisations that involve youth under 18 are prohibited from registering themselves.
Still, the European Youth Forum said that lowering the voting age to 16 has undeniable benefits. “Not only has it been proven to have a clear, positive impact on youth engagement and young people’s political knowledge but also helps to instill a habit of voting at a younger age, ultimately boosting lifelong participation rates.”
The first chance for 16 and 17-year-olds to vote under Malta’s new law comes in 2019 in the European Parliament elections. Time will tell whether a lower voting age can really boost voter turnout, and what kind of electoral results a younger voting populace will bring.