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.
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.