How old is old enough to vote? | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 10.05.2012
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How old is old enough to vote?

At what age should someone be allowed to vote? This question is currently being debated in Germany, as some political parties campaign to have the voting age lowered to 16 for state elections.

Supporters of Die Piraten (The Pirates) party react after first exit polls for the federal state elections of Germany's northern state of Schleswig-Holstein in Kiel May 6, 2012. Voting began on Sunday in Germany's northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, where Angela Merkel's conservatives are neck-and-neck with their Social Democrat rivals and know a loss of control of the state could dent the chancellor's 2013 re-election hopes. REUTERS/Morris Mac Matzen (GERMANY - Tags: ELECTIONS POLITICS)

Pirate Party state election

In the western German state of North Rhein Westphalia (NRW), campaign posters are affixed to light poles and bus stops in anticipation of the upcoming state elections this weekend. The legal age for voting in Germany is 18 with the exception of municipal elections where 16-year-olds can vote, but some Germans want to see this changed. Lowering the voting age for state elections in Germany has been a debate for some years now. There have been various attempts to decrease the voting age by political parties such as the Green Party but, to date, all attempts have failed.

A German adolescent voter

Germany is divided over whether minors should be able to vote

The increasingly popular Pirate Party is currently campaigning to have the legal voting age changed to 16 in state elections but their campaign doesn’t stop there. Pirate Party youth representative, Kai Gödde, says the party believes all people in Germany should be allowed to vote: “We think 16 is only a step. The main idea is to get the voting age lowered from 16 to 14, to zero.” How this would work in practice is not entirely clear but Gödde suggests parents could vote for their children until they are responsible enough to vote for themselves.

Sufficiently responsible?

The campaign to change the voting age raises questions about what's considered to be the appropriate age of adulthood and when a person is deemed responsible enough to vote. In Germany, 16-years-olds are legally able to drink alcohol, smoke, and work, however, a person must be 18 to drive, marry and vote in state and national elections. It’s a matter of where to draw the line, and the political parties in Germany vary on their view of where that line is. Kai Gödde of the Pirate Party believes people under 18 are those most affected by the laws of the government and that they should therefore be entitled to vote in elections.

Those opposed to the campaign, on the other hand, including Christian Democrats' (CDU) youth spokesman Mark Defosse, argue that people under 18 are not mature enough to vote at state elections. “At the municipal level it’s OK to vote at 16 because there the responsibility is not as large, but in NRW it is important that the voters are mature enough,” he says. While opposed to the idea, Defosse, however, acknowledges that it would not necessarily be harmful to the political process if the voting age were changed.

Pirate Party conference

The Pirate Party is popular among German youth

Determining the age at which young people become responsible enough to comprehend the political process is a topic that has been researched extensively by Klaus Hurrelmann, professor of social sciences at the University of Bielefeld and a known expert on youth in Germany. He says young people’s ability to understand the political process has actually improved over the years. "Today’s young people are more developed than their peers were 30 years ago.”

A leading example

To change the voting age to 16 would be to go against the grain. Very few countries around the world actually permit minors to vote in elections. In most countries, the voting age is either 18 or 21. In Europe, Austria is the only exception, after having become the first European country in 2007 to give 16-year-olds the right to vote in all elections.

Another example is the German state of Bremen, where 16-year-olds are allowed to vote at the state level. In 2011 elections in Bremen, the turnout among young voters was indeed below the average of 55.9 percent. The number of first-time voters between 16 and 20 was significantly higher (48.6 percent) compared to 21 to 25-year-olds who constituted only 39.8 percent of voters. "Where the young people were voting for the first time, they have shown a very strong turnout. In some places it was a stronger turnout than older generations," says Hurrelmann.

Political interest among young people

While some people become interested in politics at a very young age, others never become interested, says the Pirate Party’s Kai Gödde. According to Eyman Nahali of Germany's Left Party, younger people do have an interest in politics and should be included in the political process. CDU’s Defosse, however, takes a different position in the debate, arguing that 18 is the age at which people begin to become interested in politics and make their own decision. He thinks younger people are more likely to be more influenced by their parents. “Changing the voting age to 16 is not the right way to get young people interested in politics,” he says.

One of the main arguments against changing the voting age is the claim that today’s youth are not as interested in politics as they once were. Hurrelmann partly agrees that there has been a decrease in youth interest in voting. “In the past 20 years, adolescents aged 12 or 13 have become less and less interested in established political parties and their policies,” he says. However, he denies the assertion that all youth are politically disinterested. "Young people are politically interested but they want a political structure of participation, in which they participate directly in determining outcomes. The current political system is such that adolescents are becoming disenchanted with politics and this explains the increasing support of the Pirate Party."

Pirate Party

Pirate Party activists say they reach Germans directly

For political scientist Lothar Probst of the University of Bremen, lowering the voting age won’t necessarily increase young people’s interest in politics. "Whoever thinks this is the case is on the wrong track. The interest of young people in politics has to evolve through other ways. The parties have to do more. For young people, attending party meetings is too boring."

While changing the vote to 16 is regarded as an important political issue for some political parties in Germany, the issue is not a priority in the upcoming election in NRW. Since many parties - including the Social Democrats (SPD), the Green Party, the Left Party, and the Pirate Party - support the campaign, the issue is not an election decider.

Author: Charlotta Lomas
Editor: Gabriel Borrud

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