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Debate about voting

Who would benefit the most if the Lithuanian voting age was lowered to 16 years? Young people have wishes, too

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Materiały Prasowe,
09.01.2024 15:45

The Lithuanian Youth Council wants that in municipal elections the voting age be lowered to 16 years. The Seimas’ liberals think that such age requirement could also apply to the European Parliament (EP) elections. DELFI has organised a discussion on this matter.

Why only municipal elections

Data shows that a record number of young people voted in the 2019 presidential elections, but during the 2020 Seimas elections the youth was the least active group of voters – only 38% of people under 25 years of age voted in the first round. Now, when talks have begun about lowering the voting age, only the municipal elections are being mentioned. According to the president of the Lithuanian Youth Council, Umberto Masi, such a goal is clearly motivated.

"Our main objective relies on international practice and scientific research, i.e. the sooner people begin to vote or participate in elections, the bigger the chance that they will continue voting throughout their life. Why do we insist on lowering the voting age just for the municipal elections? Well, we believe that currently the Seimas and the EP, perhaps, are in need of more and wider discussions," he said.

What is more, according to Masi, a municipality is an institution that is closest to every person, thus this proposal is aimed at this aspect.

"Typically, having reached the age of 18–19, young people change their environment and leave their hometown. So, before all this life stuff happens, they would be able to contribute to the formation and well-being of their community," the Lithuanian Youth Council president argued.

Foreign good practices

According to Mykolas Romeris University political scientist Rima Urbonaite, it is obvious that there is definitely sense in considering this possibility in Lithuania, with positive examples from other countries serving as food for thought. For instance, the youth of Australia (16–17 years of age) are voting more actively than the residents aged 18–20, and their turnover is similar to the average of the general electorate.

"It is obvious that there’s a need for discussion because if there wasn’t and nobody needed such a change, Masi would not be sitting here, talking about the initiative. Indeed, if we take a look at, let’s say, the EP elections, the right to vote from the age of 16 is in effect in Austria (adopted in 2007) and Belgium, as well as Malta and even Germany. They, too, differentiate one election from the other," she stated.

She also explained why in Lithuania we should talk precisely about lowering the age of voters for municipal elections.

"Self-governance is very important because it is the starting point in terms of understanding about the state ad democracy. I believe that people should want to be involved in the decision-making process. Sure, there are other ways, but if we look at Austria, they had this interesting result that their 16 or 17-year-olds were voting more actively than the 17 or 18-year-olds. It seems that this turnover is related to the fact that they had not left their native environment," Urbonaite added.

On the other hand, even though the time for such discussions is ripe, at least according to Urbonaite, there is one "but".

"Most probably we will agree that the Austrians invest more into citizenship than we have been investing. I have criticized very strongly the situation in Lithuania regarding civic education. The experiences that my students bring from school, I think, should not even be tolerated, so there is definitely room for improvement," she surmised.

Voting from the age of 16 and various gaps

Masi agrees that there are serious issues with civic education in Lithuania.

"Colleagues from Estonia have told us exactly the same thing. Because of this, the matter of lowering the voting age goes hand in hand with talks about the glaring problems in our civic education system," he said.

According to Lithuanian Youth Council president, this topic can be discussed much more broadly.

"If we look at engagement generally, not just in terms of young people, we have a lot of problems, and looking further into future or our current perspective, the lack of engagement and the passiveness of our citizens may have major consequences, especially in the presence of crises," Masi said.

According to him, several things are worth stressing.

"First of all, I’ve heard stories about what young people are doing during those civic education lessons. They write essays. This is an essentially unsuitable method for engaging young people. In other countries discussions are held about voting with pupils that cannot even vote yet, but politicians come to schools, talk to them, and try to interest in voting," he continued.

What is more, when we talk about citizenship, we directly relate it to partism, which is not beneficial to our society.

"Politicalness is not just belonging to some political power or being one, or following/representing an ideology. And yet, I hear stories that youth organisations try to gain access to schools and cannot because of their political beliefs. Therefore, we have another problem: even if there is an attempt at having a discussion, there is no room for it, apparently. This is the biggest problem in schools – the fact that we do not practice democracy," Masi claimed.

The president noted that democracy was not just voting and elections.

"There’s much more to it, and with this initiative we are precisely aiming at expanding said discussions and looking for ways how to involve civic organisations in order to reach more young people," he explained.

It is a matter of democracy

According to lawyer Algimantas Sindeikis, when considering the possibility of lowering the voting age to 16 years, we should remember certain fundamental constitutional principles of election law.

"In Lithuania, just like in any other democratic country, the citizens, the nation are not the rulers. They rule it via their elected representatives, including municipality members, the president, and members of the EP. In legal language terms, it is a representative democracy," he said.

Sindeikis added that in a representative democracy everything works like clockwork only when all the groups of society, both in terms of age, social status, and other parameters, have equal rights to elect their representatives.

"So, the question is directly related to democracy and is as follows: do people who have turned 16, contrary to the Constitution, which states very clearly that the right to vote is granted to people of ages 18 and older, also have the right to participate in elections and have their own representatives at our institutions? I think that such a position is legally sound," the lawyer admitted.

He gave his opinion on why it is so.

"Let’s look at our demographics. The number of older people is getting bigger, and the number of young people is quite low. Despite this, young people, too, have to be represented by politicians. Why? Because the very principle of state survival is related to the fact that everyone – both the older ones, who have some experience and knowledge, and the younger ones – can express their ideas and thoughts and make decisions," Sindeikis said.

This coherence of competing movements creates a democracy that allows the country to develop and continue to exist.

"So, this matter is a matter of democracy. No wonder countries like Austria or Belgium allow people who have turned 16 to vote and believe that this is a better way to ensure representative democracy. I think that certain counterarguments, e.g. are these young people civic, are not well-founded because, at least in my environment, young people are sometimes more civic than much older ones," the lawyer shared his insight.

Major changes are needed

Sindeikis argued that all these possible changes require amending the Constitution; therefore, it will take some time.

"There is no way the voting age will be lowered before the next elections. The provisions of Article 34 are amended by two voting sessions in the Seimas, with a 3-month pause. Thus, it is technically impossible to achieve next year. I guess this will be a longer discussion because in order to amend the Constitution some serious work needs to be done," he noted.

Two thirds of the Seimas members would have to vote in favour of this amendment during two separate ballots.

The needs of young people have to be heard

According to Vilnius University sociologist Ruta Ziliukaite, when talking about which political parties and how much would benefit from the lowering of the voting age, it is important to understand several key things.

"Regarding the political parties, they have a very specific type of voter in mind which they can mobilize. Some parties lean more towards the youth as their electorate, others see more opportunities, but even my colleagues say that many young people would vote for the Freedom Party, for the current ruling party. Yes, that is true. The youth factor is really important in this scenario, but we mustn’t forget that not all young people will vote for the ruling party," Ziliukaite said.

She thinks that those young people who would not vote for the ruling party are also worth paying attention to.

"We have to look at not only residents of big cities, not only those that can be readily identified as active members of society. There are all kinds of young people," the sociologist said.

According to Ziliukaite, we need to understand that both the cities and smaller towns have issues that can be relevant to young people.

"Young people definitely have various requirements, and we should not pit the youth against the older residents. Some issues are common, some – separate," she said.

So, as Ziliukaite puts it, young people are also a very important part of the electorate; therefore, it is only natural that they should be represented and have their needs and specific requirements addressed.

"They should be reflected in the programs of political parties. What is more, governmental programs should have problems that are relevant to the youth as well, these problems have to be dealt with, and there is nothing to argue about here. When it comes to maturity and whether we are ready for voting since 16, we can see how it goes, but I always want not just flag-waving, but reasonable arguments from the group’s perspective," Ziliukaite said.

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