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German 16-year-olds to cast first votes in EU elections

June 9, 2024

A decrease in Germany's voting age from 18 to 16 could bring more than a million additional people to the polls for the European elections.

left to right: Fabian Navarro, Maria Viktoria Junker and Maja Steinbach stand in front of their winning poster, which says "First Kiss, First Time, First Vote".
Fabian Navarro (left to right), Maria Viktoria Junker and Maja Steinbach were joint winners of a poster competition to get young voters to participate in the 2024 EU electionsImage: EU

As Germany's 16- and 17-year-olds wait for a train these days, they're regularly faced with numerous posters designed especially with them in mind.

The 1,000 posters are part of a nationwide competition to encourage young people to vote in the European electionsbefore polls close on June 9.

One of the winning posters has the ambiguous slogan "First kiss, first time, first vote" and was created by media design students Maja Steinbach, Maria Viktoria Junker and Fabian Navarro.

"We want to show that the election is a positive, exciting experience, that you can try something new," they told DW.  

"Young people are currently in a phase of life where they are making their first important decisions," they said. "We want to reach them in that phase, and the ambiguity is our hook — the first kiss, the first relationship, the 'first time' — to have a poster that stands out, showing all the benefits of the EU."

'First Kiss, First Time, First Election' campaign poster on train platform at Cologne main station
The 'First kiss, First time, First election' campaign posters are targeting 16-year-olds across GermanyImage: Fabian Navarro Rubio

This is the first year people as young as 16 can vote in the elections for the European Parliament. As well as the posters, which come in six different versions, the EU campaign is running over a million ads. The goal is to hit the right nerve — to appeal to young people and not scare them off.

Steinbach, Junker and Navarro said targeting teenagers just a few years younger than themselves meant emphasizing individuality, engaging current trends and taking ever-shorter attention spans into account.

"If we can persuade just a few young people to vote in the European elections with our posters, we will be satisfied," they said. 

Young people 'too rarely heard'

Delara Burkhardt, the environmental policy spokesperson for the Germany's center-left Social Democrats (SPD) at the European Parliament, became interested in politics when she was 15. She wishes she could have been eligible to vote in Germany back then.

In 2019, at the age of 26, she became Germany's youngest member of the European Parliament. For the European elections, which take place across the bloc from June 6 to 9, she is running on the Social Democrats' national list for the second time.

Burkhardt told DW that for far too long, far too little has been done to help young people have a stronger voice.

Delara Burkhardt smiles as she leans on a walkway.
European lawmaker Delara Burkhardt supports the idea of having younger voters take part in the European electionsImage: EP

"Voting from the age of 16 is an important step to compensate for a demographic disadvantage and to boost the value of young people's voices at the political level," she said. "Our society is increasingly aging, and young people's perspectives are too rarely heard in the political debate."

According to the EU's statistics office, Eurostat, in 2022 Germany had the fourth-oldest population in the bloc, with an average age of 45.8. Only Italy, Portugal and Greece have older populations.

This has consequences for how, and for whom, politics work. In the latest survey by the Vodafone Foundation, three out of four young people between the ages of 14 and 24 said they were dissatisfied with how their interests have been taken up by politicians.

They said their main worries were inflation, the wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, scarce and expensive housing and climate change.

Burkhardt is especially committed to climate protection. She is also an avid user of social media, sending constant updates to her followers on TikTok, Instagram and X, previously Twitter.

"Young people are often surprised when I describe my work in Brussels," she said. "They say things like: 'I didn't know that the EU was concerned about this' or 'You really are interested in what we think.' They often feel that politicians are not taking notice of them."

When Burkhardt asked if politics affected students' everyday life during a recent visit to a vocational school, not a single person responded, she said.

"During the past five years, I've been one of the very few colleagues to use social media intensively," she said. "But I can see that many [politicians] are just starting to really activate their channels for the election campaign. But that's not how you build a community. That's not how you create coverage. That's not how you convey democratic values."

Expanding Germany's electorate

Constitutional lawyer Hermann Heussner has backed the idea to lower the voting age for the last 30 years.

"Youth researchers and psychologists say that when people are between the ages of 12 and 14, they have a surge in intellectual development," Heussner told DW. "Afterward, they are able to think in a largely abstract, hypothetical and logical way, like adults do. They are also able to empathize with others, and can perceive, and take other people's interests into account. And they can intellectually grasp [...] complex relationships."

Within Germany, 16-year-olds are eligible to vote in state elections in six states. But for that age to become eligible for voting in national elections, Germany's constitution would need to be amended.

Germany — along with Belgium, Austria, Greece and Malta — has now granted voting rights to 16- and 17-year-olds in European elections.

Hermann Heussner speaking into a microphone at a rally
Heussner has long campaigned to lower the voting age in GermanyImage: Hartenfelser/IMAGO

Opponents of lowering Germany's voting age have said young people are too immature to make informed political judgments.

The previous minimum voting age, 18, has led to an imbalance. Due to Germany's aging population, older people make up a greater percentage of the total voters. 

In Germany's 2021 federal election, 39% of voters were over the age of 60 and only 14% were between the ages of 18 and 30.

Heussner is committed to going further, and now advocates for the right to vote from the age of 14 — and younger if necessary.

"This is only be the beginning," he said. "If you really want to take democracy seriously and get the demographic problem under control, you have to introduce the right to vote from birth. Children would have their own right to vote, and their parents would vote on their behalf until they are able to exercise that right themselves."

This article was originally written in German.

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Oliver Pieper | Analysis & Reports
Oliver Pieper Reporter on German politics and society, as well as South American affairs.