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Irish Convention Recommends Lowering the Voting Age

by Robert Fekete // Published July 8, 2013
house of the oireachtas3

The following is the third post in FairVote's series on the Irish electoral system and the 2013 Convention on the Constitution in Ireland. For more, see the first post, an analysis of Ireland's ranked choice voting system, and the second post, an overview of the constitutional convention.

The Irish Convention on the Constitution is considering a wide variety of reforms to its electoral system, including some significant structural modifications to Ireland's use of choice voting. But the Convention has also discussed a different sort of voting reform, one which is also gaining traction in the U.S.: lowering the voting age to sixteen or seventeen years old.

The convention heard testimony about the experiences of Austria when they became the first nation in the European Union to lower the national voting age to sixteen. Further testimony in favor of the change noted the steady decline in young people turning out to vote and the mounting evidence that voting is habit-based. Preventing sixteen and seventeen year olds from voting in elections leaves young voters disconnected from the overall political process. When people do start voting at a young age, however, they are significantly more likely to continue regularly voting for the rest of their lives.

The testimony also noted that there is no evidence to suggest that young people would be particularly ignorant voters. To the contrary, they may be even more informed than many adults, as most seventeen-year-olds are still receiving a formal education and can apply what they are learning in their civics courses to their decision in the ballot box.

The issue was contentious, but the Convention ultimately recommended to the Parliament in March that the voting age should be lowered, by a vote of 52% to 48%. The Convention was split on what the new age should be, with 48% supporting lowering the voting age to sixteen and 39% preferring the more modest step of only allowing seventeen-year-olds to vote (14% expressed no opinion).

According to opinion polling mentioned during the discussion, the members of the Convention reflect the overall Irish public's opinion about lowering the voting age. If Parliament agrees with the Convention's recommendation, a lower voting age would be headed towards a national referendum.

Just a few weeks after the Convention's recommendation, Takoma Park, Maryland became the first city in the United States to lower its voting age to 16 when it passed a charter amendment. FairVote's Promote Our Vote program is encouraging other jurisdictions in the U.S. to follow suit by taking a close look at policies that could expand voter participation and help instill lifelong voting habits.

In addition to the voting age, the Convention on the Constitution has considered several other issues more tangentially related to its electoral system, including reducing the term of the presidency and encouraging the increased participation of women in politics. The latter recommendation is shared by FairVote's Representation 2020 campaign, which is working to achieve gender parity in representation in American politics.

The Convention will have regional meetings and three more sessions about reforms to the constitution later this year. The final session is open to any other proposal that the Convention wants to hear, and could theoretically involve more discussion of voting reform. The Irish Constitutional Convention's deliberation on the voting age issue not only represents a positive step for increasing voter participation in Ireland, but also demonstrates the value of an independent assembly with the freedom to consider innovative ideas for improving democracy.

Check back soon for the final post in our series on Ireland, an in-depth analysis of the various modifications to choice voting discussed by the Irish Convention on the Constitution.

UPDATE 7/10: The government of Ireland has accepted the recommendation of the Convention to lower the voting age. The question will now be put to a national referendum during this administration.

It is worth noting that there is a chance that 16 year old voting will be defeated in the referendum, as it is still a relatively new concept to the Irish people and is unlikely to be deliberated to the extent that it was in the Constitutional Convention. As 16 year old voting becomes more normalized internationally, however, referendums such as this one will have an increasingly high likelihood of success.