Federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has called for the federal voting age to be lowered to 16 to combat “the apathy and cynicism of young people towards politics”. But would lowering the voting age really engage the nation’s youth?

Shorten made the call at a NSW Young Labor conference in Sydney on Saturday (he knows his audience), noting that 17,000 Australians under 18 paid more than $41 million in income tax in 2012-13, and quoting data from the Australian Electoral Commission showing 400,000 Australians aged 18 to 24 did not enrol to vote between 2010 and 2013.

But what would the consequences be of lowering the voting age in Australia? Which countries already have lower voting ages, and to what extent has it affected their turnout numbers?

Which countries have lowered the voting age to 16?

There are 10 countries with a current voting age of 16. Nicaragua was the first country to lower its voting age, in November 1984. It was followed by Brazil (1988), Isle of Man (2006), Austria and Guernsey (2007), Jersey and Ecuador (2008), Argentina (2012), Malta (2013 for local council elections starting from 2015) and Estonia (2015 in local elections only). In addition, people aged 16 to 18 can vote in Bosnia, Serbia and Montenegro if employed.

There have also been instances where countries have lowered the voting age to 16 for a particular election. An example of this was the recent Scottish independence referendum, in which those 16 and older were allowed to have their say.

How did it affect turnout numbers?

Research on voting in Austria showed the turnout rates of 16- to 17-year-olds was comparable to those of that of the electorate at large and was actually higher than the turnout rate among older teenagers. The voting turnout among 16- and 17-year-olds in Vienna in 2010, was 64.2%, as compared to 56.3% for those 18-20.

Figures from the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance show that though the Austrian voting population between 2006 and 2013 rose, actual voter turnout to parliamentary and presidential elections declined.

OK, but would that also be true here?

Researchers concluded there was no reason that Austrians under the age of 18 were likely to be outliers in their political interest and knowledge compared to teenagers in other countries. However, political science professor at Australian National University Ian McAllister says it’s not possible to draw an effective comparison because Austria does not have compulsory voting.

What would be the consequences?

UNSW law professor George Williams suggests in The Age that lowering the voting age could help get young people engaged in politics before their lives become too full with working or studying at university.

But McAllister argues in his 2013 report that there is no evidence it would increase turnout among the young and that other research has shown turnout is more likely to increase with age. He says that while a younger voting age might draw younger people in to the voting process, they wouldn’t be engaged. In order for the move to be effective, it would need to be in conjunction with a civics education.

“One positive thing that does come out of discussions like these though is that people are talking about political disengagement which is an issue not only affecting Australia but other Western countries across the globe.”

That is, if teenagers even want to vote. As Crikey has previously reported, the Lowy Institute has found only 39% of 18 to 29-year-olds rated democracy as preferable to other kinds of government.

And if Shorten thinks allowing the youth to vote will increase Labor’s electoral sway, he could be mistaken. According to analysis by Crikey‘s Poll Bludger, the older generation, not younger, are becoming more Labor-leaning. And Shorten also probably shouldn’t look to the recent success in voter turnout for the Scottish independence referendum (considering the conservative view prevailed).

Antony Green’s comments on The Drum on Monday highlighted the issue, with the turnout rate among younger voters who are put on the electoral roll via automatic enrolment “quite low”. Perhaps there shouldn’t be a rush to impose compulsory voting on 16- and 17-year-olds in Australia and instead a leaf taken out of Argentina and Brazil’s books — the countries offer optional voting for those under 18. Young people are still very impressionable and we wouldn’t want elections to start featuring pop celebrity endorsements or One Direction campaign songs — Peter Garrett was enough.

Peter Fray

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