Leiden Law Blog

The Future of Adolescents’ Right to Vote and Political Participation

Posted on by Daniella Zlotnik in Private Law , 4
The Future of Adolescents’ Right to Vote and Political Participation

The participation of children in politics, and particularly the debate concerning adolescents’ right to vote, is emerging as a new frontier in the children’s rights discourse. This issue is not limited to democratic or governance considerations, but also has a direct impact on the evolving autonomy and future of adolescents. For example, following the UK Brexit vote, one adolescent commented ‘’I am 17 years old, I am a student and currently study politics. [..] The decision to leave the EU was made without my voice being heard. I couldn’t vote in what is probably the most important political decision the British people have made, an irreversible decision..’’

What can the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) contribute to the discussion surrounding adolescents’ right to vote, political rights and participation in formal politics?

International Human Rights and Voting Children

The right to vote is anchored in international human rights instruments. Yet, historically, children have been viewed as lacking the capacity to fully understand or participate in political life, and to date they remain the only social group that is generally denied the right to vote.

The CRC introduced a new image of children as rights-holders with evolving capacities. Moreover, there are increasing calls at the UN and European level to lower the voting age and enable adolescents (~16-17 year olds) to engage in formal politics. In the past decade, Austria and Scotland have lowered the voting age for local and national elections, and other (European) countries currently face increasing demands from adolescents to have a right to vote. In that regard, the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly has issued a resolution calling states to explore lowering the voting age to 16, and recommended increasing opportunities for adolescents to participate in public life and democratic bodies.

These developments have largely been associated with democratic gains, such as increasing voter turnout, or involving more young people in politics, but they are also closely tied to the recognition of adolescents’ evolving capacities. Today’s adolescents enjoy increasing access to education and information and are also socially engaged. However, these changes have not (yet) resulted in a widespread recognition of adolescents’ political potential.

A CRC Perspective

The CRC is a starting point for analyzing the rights of children in international law. While it is silent on the issue of voting - it does hold some potential for recognising children as political agents. The CRC recognises children as members of society with valuable voices, perspectives and experiences. The CRC also anchors notable civil and political rights for children, including freedom of expression, freedom of thought and conscience, and freedom of association and peaceful assembly, and it recognises children’s evolving capacities to exercise these rights (§5, 13-15 CRC).

Most notably in the context of political participation is the right of the child to be heard and express views in all matters affecting his or her life (§12 CRC). Child participation, then, has been identified as a general principle of the convention and one of its most fundamental values. In its most recent general comment, focusing on children’s rights during adolescence, the CRC Committee specifically recognised the potential of adolescents in relation to politics, and connected the right to be heard to political engagement. It further found that States should adopt policies to increase the political participation of adolescents, and allow them to join political parties.

Thus, a close reading of the CRC, and attention to recent voices from the CRC Committee, allows us to re-interpret existing rights of children (e.g. participation, association, expression) in the political context. While further work is required in determining the scope of political participation rights of children, it is possible to read in legal and other obligations of States to recognise children’s (specifically adolescents’) emerging role in the context of formal politics, including in relation to the right to vote.

Between Agency and (Political) Knowledge

As part of this discussion many turn the focus to young adult voters (~18-24) that, traditionally, have a low voter turnout rate and (according to some studies) find politics to be confusing (see Henn & Foard). Among the various factors connected with young adults’ vote, a key concern is that they are not politically informed, and lack an arena to develop their political interests. This link - between political knowledge and exercising the right to vote - is important for adolescents.

The CRC Committee recognises that lowering the voting age is not sufficient. States are also recommended to monitor the impact of lowering the voting age in practice, and to ensure that adolescents able to vote receive citizenship and human rights education in order to exercise their right with autonomy and responsibility (CRC Concluding-Observations UK; CRC Concluding-Observations Austria; CRC GC 20).

Ensuring that adolescents are politically aware and receive reliable information requires a systemic change for both State and non-State actors. Schools, in particular, are a critical arena for developing political interests, and as lowering the voting age is often coupled with mandated political and human rights education - schools have an increasingly important role with regard to voting adolescents (Zeglovits & Zandonella). Still, other youth-oriented platforms also need to offer reliable information and encourage political engagement. An interesting example in this regard is U.S. ‘’Teen Vogue’’ magazine that early in 2017 announced its adoption of a political and social agenda, in order to respond to the increased political engagement of adolescents.

Thus, to empower adolescents to effectively exercise their right to vote, lowering the voting age should be accompanied by programmes to encourage political discussion, in both public and private spheres.

Beyond Voting?

Even if we can infer a right to vote in the CRC, and the right to vote for adolescents becomes a reality on the ground, lowering the voting age is not sufficient (and possibly not necessary) to ensure political participation of adolescents.

Participation of adolescents in formal politics is broader than what happens on ‘Election Day’. This requires that adolescents receive civic and human rights education, that they are legally able to join political parties, and that adapted and child-friendly venues exist where they can approach government and other political actors. It is these systemic changes (and not merely the right to vote) that will safeguard the political rights of adolescents. 

4 Comments

jaap
Posted by jaap on July 4, 2017 at 17:01

Art, 25 ICCPR states (inter alia) that every citizen shall have the right to vote, without any of the distinctions mentioned in article 2; one of these distinctions is “other status” and we may assume that this includes e.g the status of being a child. There is noithing in article 2 suggesting that there could be limitation to the right to vote ( e.g because the citizen is a child.Furthermore article 41 CRC tell us that we should apply a provision of international law in force for the State that is more conducive ( than provisons of the CRC) for the realisation of the rights of the child. In conclusion: in states parties to the ICCPR and the CRC every child should have the right to vote. This right can be exercised by the child her/himself depending on evolving capacities. If that is creating too many practical problems set an age e.g. 14 for the exercise of that right and for all children below that age their right to vote should be exercised by their legal representative ( ususally a parent)

Daniella Zlotnik
Posted by Daniella Zlotnik on July 4, 2017 at 14:48

Thank you all for the comments and feedback. Very interesting remarks!

Olga - I agree that the CRC Committee can, and should, have an important role to play in relation to this topic. If you look at General Comment 20 on the rights of adolescents, it does connect between the right to be heard (Art 12) with political engagement. But this requires further development, no doubt.

‘’Just passing by’’ – I believe that the human rights discourse is particularly relevant to any discussion relating to the right to vote and political participation. From a legal and social perspective, suffrage movements (e.g., women, racial minorities, and also recent debates on non-nationals vote) are closely connected with human rights. The age requirement is not merely a technical element, but has implications for children’s internationally recognize rights to participation, expression, association, etc. In addition, we should keep in mind that voting is also linked to citizenship, national community, and a sense of belonging. These elements, too, impact how we perceive children in society.
Yet, I do agree that there should be a certain reasonable cut-off point for vote. This is why I think we should go beyond voting, to consider how to allow all children (even those unable to vote) to exercise their right to participate in public life, express their views, and enjoy adapted procedures to access political bodies or government.

Just passing by
Posted by Just passing by on July 4, 2017 at 00:52

It’s an interesting thought exercise that you present here.
However, I’m not certain that the rights discourse is related to determining the appropriate age for voting. Assuming that voting is a citizen’s right, and that newborns are citizens, any age line set is an arbitrary decision, hopefully backed up by some reason for choosing that.
A discussion about voting age should revolve around the underlying logic - we might say that citizens get voting rights when they are, on average, mature enough. In such case, we might set the bar at 18, at 15 or at the child’s Bar-Mitzva. But this only moves the problem to a different age - if 16 is to be set as the new voting age, what about 15 year olds? why are they being denied? under the assumption that toddlers shouldn’t vote - there should be an age line somewhere.

Taking this discussion to the rights-discourse does not do justice to neither the topic at hand nor to the rights-discourse.

Olga
Posted by Olga on July 3, 2017 at 14:19

I think the article addresses very valid issue. I agree with the author that Brexit can be considered as a turning point for the discussion about political participation of adolescents. Moreover, Brexit referendum caused surprising and lively reactions in the media worldwide, for instance a highly controversial proposal “to ban old people from voting” (http://www.gq-magazine.co.uk/article/eu-referendum-old-people-should-not-vote). Those actions illustrate young people’s frustration about being powerless in important decisions affecting them directly. Maybe the updated version of the CRC will redefine the right to be heard with including the right to vote in it? (art.12 CRC)

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