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Submission to the Green Paper on Local Government

In 2007 the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, John Gormley established a group http://www.environ.ie/en/LocalGovernment/LocalGovernmentAdministration/News/MainBody,14727,en.htm to explore ideas and make proposals for the reform of Local Government. NYCI believes that a positive reform would be giving young people a greater say in decisions and actions that affect them. That is why we made a submission to the Green Paper on Local Government Reform calling for the right to vote to be extended to young people aged 16 and 17 years old. See below:

 

Introduction

The National Youth Council of Ireland (NYCI) is the representative body for voluntary youth organisations.   NYCI functions to represent the interests of young people and youth organisations. NYCI’s role is recognised in legislation (Youth Work Act) and as a Social Partner. The NYCI aims through its member organisations and its representative role to empower young people to participate in society as fulfilled confident individuals. The work of the Youth Council is based on principles of equality, social justice and equal participation for all. In achieving these aims the NYCI seeks the emergence of a society in which young people are valued citizens who can make a meaningful contribution to their community.   NYCI welcomes the opportunity to input into the Green Paper on Local Government.   Background While there are a number of issues which we could focus on, we have decided to focus solely on widening the participation and involvement of young people in the democratic process. This is vital for the future health and vibrancy of our democratic system and structures. In our view there can be no democracy without participation, and therefore, it is vital for the health and depth of our democracy to have greater youth participation and active citizenship.   With the forthcoming Local Elections in June 2009, we believe the time is now right to reduce the voting age for Local Government elections to 16. In this submission we outline the policy, political and practical reasons for allowing 16 and 17 year olds the right to vote in local elections. We are not claiming this will be a panacea, but we believe it would make a significant contribution, not only in encouraging and supporting young people to participate in the electoral system, but would also be a strong statement of political will by the Government and political system that they are interested in young people and in their views. In the Local Government Act of 2001, Section 64 (2) (d) it states that Local Authorities should “promote interest among young people in democracy and local government and in community and civic affairs generally”. We believe that introducing the right to vote at 16 would go some of the way to meeting that commitment. Many of the decisions taken by local authorities’ impact directly on young people. Aside from the obvious matters such as community facilities and amenities designed for teenagers and young adults, other matters to do with social inclusion, public transport, and planning are of real relevance to those aged 16 and 17.  

 

  Political Mandate: We note that in announcing changes to his new Government on May 7th last that An Taoiseach Brian Cowen T.D. stated that “this as a clear signal that a focus on young people and their needs will be a particular priority for the Government”[1] We believe that enfranchising young people aged 16 and 17 would send a strong and immediate signal that the Government is intent on following through on this commitment.     Generation of greater interest and awareness of politics at an earlier age Ensuring that young people can vote at 16 years of age will undoubtedly generate interest and a greater awareness of politics at an earlier age. Raising political awareness at a younger age will lead in our view to greater involvement in a variety of political forums from school councils to students’ union activism. Giving young people at 16 the right to vote will engender a renewed interest among this age cohort about politics, and a greater awareness of issues. Too often young people still in school learn a lot about democracy and participation, but rarely do they get an opportunity to practice it. Reducing the voting age would give them that practical experience. Ensuring that political interest is cultivated at an earlier age can only be a positive step. Such civic, social and political engagement is an integral part of an individual’s personal and social development. Like participation in youth organisations and extra-curricular activities outside the classroom such as sport or debating and public speaking, the right to vote at 16 years of age will serve to empower younger people about their ability to shape and influence decisions that affect their lives.     Active Citizenship and Voter Participation In the Report on Active Citizenship Consultation Process, one of the key recommendations made was that in order to promote greater voter participation, the voting age should be lowered to 16.[2] In essence, reducing the voting age will afford the young people of today an opportunity to actively participate in our democracy at an earlier age.     Lack of Registration is the biggest obstacle to voting by young people: The most recent data available from the Central Statistics Office indicates that non-registration is very high among young people. In the 2002 General Election, not being registered to vote was the most significant reason given for why young people didn’t vote. 39.4% of 18-19 year olds and 25.5% of 20-24 year old could not vote for this reason.[3]  Therefore registration is the most significant factor which inhibits young people from voting. We believe as outlined below that reducing the voting age would contribute to solving this problem.  

 

Registration 18 is probably the worst age at which to register young people, because the vast majority of them are in the process of moving from their family home to college/away to work and are otherwise distracted. A lot of young people fall through the cracks at this point and are not registered until many years later, when perhaps the voting habit is lost. Since the vast majority of young people are still in secondary school at the age of 16, it would be very easy for the registration authorities to get them on the register and therefore a lot less likely that they would fail to be registered to vote.     16 and 17 year olds can marry, drive, get a job and pay tax. Why not vote? NYCI believes that if a 16 year old can leave school, seek full-time employment, be liable for tax and obtain a licence to drive a small motor cycle or join the army then can they not be entrusted with the civic responsibility of voting? We believe extending the right to vote to 16 and 17 year old in the first instance to local elections would be more consistent with other policies and legislation.     No Legal/Constitutional Barriers to change for Local Elections:  NYCI believes that the voting age should be reduced to 16 for all elections and referenda. However we acknowledge that our Constitution stipulates that voters must be 18 years or older for Dáil elections and referenda and a constitutional amendment put to the people in a referendum would be required to change this. While we would support such a constitutional change, it may take some time for this change to occur. Therefore, in the interim and as a first step we believe that the Minster for Environment, Heritage and Local Government should legislate to allow young people aged 16 and 17 to vote in local elections, which he is empowered to do at present.     Giving Young People aged 16-17 a voice in decisions that affect them:  Many issues decided by local authorities and associated bodies such as VECs and City/County Development Boards in areas such as education, environmental and recreational policies impact on the lives of young people. Lowering the voting age would ensure that young people aged 16 and 17 would have a say in decisions and actions which impact upon their lives. It would also ensure that local politicians are more responsive to this age group, therefore increasing the interaction and trust between young people and local councillors.     Young People at 16 and 17 are mature enough to vote: Some would argue that young people aged 16 and 17 are not mature enough to make informed decisions when voting. From our work and experience this argument about maturity is fundamentally flawed and should not be considered relevant to the debate. Such arguments are reminiscent of those who argued that women were immature and should not be given the vote in the last century. The arguments against giving young people aged 16-17 the right to vote now are as ludicrous as those against women in the last century and should not be entertained.     International Developments: There is a growing move across Europe and the World to reduce the voting age to 16. From the 1st July 2007 Austria became the first EU member state to allow young people who have reached 16 to vote in all elections. This follows on from the introduction of a vote at 16 in 5 of the 9 Austrian states since 2003. In Germany, 7 of the 16 federal states allow young people to vote at 16 in municipal and regional elections.   In Lower Saxony in Germany, the right to vote in local elections was extended to 16 years olds in 1996. Participation in the elections that followed this reform was remarkable. In contrast to the 49% of 18-24 year olds who voted, over 56.5% of 16-17 year olds voted. One canton in Switzerland, Glarus has granted the right to vote at 16 also. Further afield, young people can vote at 15 in Iran, 16 in Brazil and Nicaragua and at 17 in East Timor, Indonesia, The Seychelles and the Sudan. The movement towards a lowering of the voting age internationally reflects the realisation that young people at this age can participate meaningfully, while authorities recognise the need to give young people a stake in democracy as early as possible.     Conclusion: We strongly urge the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to introduce legislation allowing young people to vote in the next local elections in 2009 at 16 for all the reasons outlined above. Primarily it will send a strong signal to young people that politicians and the political system are interested in encouraging them to participate in the democratic process. Secondly introducing this measure for local elections may serve to convince those who are opposed or sceptical about this proposal in general, and if successful there may be political support to extend the vote to 16 and 17 year olds for all elections and referenda.

 

 


[1] Mr. Brian Cowen T.D. on the day of his election as Taoiseach, Dáil Eireann 7th May 2008 [2] Report on Active Citizenship Consultation Process, November 2006. [3] Quarterly National Household Survey, Voter Participation and Abstention, CSO April 2003.