Earlier this week, the All Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution released its final report. Amongst the various proposals in relation to electoral reform made by the Committee was a recommendation that the voting age for Dáil elections should be lowered from 18 to 17 years-of-age.
In terms of Article 16 of the Constitution, voting for Dáil Éireann candidates is currently limited to those over 18, while the age of eligibility for membership of Dáil Éireann (in relation to which the Committee did not make any recommendations) is prescribed as 21.
In addition, the Committee recommended that a voter education programme should be introduced as part of the senior cycle programme in second-level schools, to promote awareness of the right to vote among newly eligible voters.
In its report, the Committee highlighted that areas in the electoral system where improvements are required include ‘the political engagement of young people’ (p.16) The proposed reduction in voting age was consistent with submissions made by a range of international and domestic experts on youth voting and issues of youth citizenship more broadly (see pages 79-83 and 123-126). These submissions highlighted the link between reduced voting ages and increased voter turnout, the lack of political accountability of elected representatives to children under 18, and the discrimination inherent to the current situation in which Irish people under 18 can leave school, work and pay taxes but have no right to a say in democratic decision-making.
The reduction in voting age from 18 to 17 would be welcome in terms of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and particularly Article 12(1) which sets out the obligation of States Parties ‘to assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.’ Such a move would also be consistent with Article 5 CRC, terms of which, states are to ‘respect the responsibilities, rights and duties of parents [and others responsible for the child] to provide, in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child, appropriate direction and guidance in the exercise by the child of the rights recognized in the present Convention.’ The combination of Article 12 and Article 5 augers strongly in favour of the lowering of voting ages (thereby enabling participation of the child in democratic decision-making processes) in accordance with the ‘evolving capacities of the child’.
Unfortunately, the Committee on the Rights of the Child has engaged with the issue of child democratic participation to only a limited extent. While it has commended reductions in the age of enfranchisement in various states parties, it has not gone so far as to recommend a minimum voting age in the way that it has done so, for example, in the context of the minimum age of criminal responsibility (for more on this, see A. Nolan, ‘The Child as “Democratic Citizen” – Challenging the “Participation Gap”’ (2010) 3 Public Law (forthcoming)). It has also failed to address the range of possible measures, including amending the franchise, the introduction of plural voting for persons of different ages (which amounts to making the weight of a person’s vote age-sensitive) or introducing a proxy vote for children (exercised by their parents) that might be employed to ensure greater democratic participation, and more extensive representation of the interests, of children. (For more, see P. van Parijs, ‘The Disfranchisement of the Elderly, and Other Attempts to Secure Intergenerational Justice (1999) 27 Philosophy and Public Affairs 292-333).
The recent scandals in terms of failures in child protection and child-related service delivery in Ireland have not resulted in those actors with ultimate responsibility for the delivery of those services – namely, the elected branches of government – being held to account. There are a range of reasons for this, including an effort on the part of government to portray these shortcomings as primarily attributable to specific administrative or bureaucratic failures. This is despite overwhelming evidence of historic, systemic gaps in the overall legal and policy frameworks dealing with child service delivery.
A serious question has to be asked about whether these lacunae would still exist if members of Dáil Éireann were directly accountable to the key victims of those lacunae – that is, children.
Based on experience in terms of adult voting, even if the vote was accorded to all children above the age of (for instance) 14, those children who are the direct victims of service delivery shortcomings may not vote themselves (and, indeed, some will not be able to do so due to being ineligible in terms of the reduced voting age limit or by being disqualified for other reasons). More generally, it cannot be assumed that all eligible children would vote, despite being given the opportunity to do so, in the absence of a compulsory voting system. Finally, one might argue that socially marginalised children who suffer from shortcomings in service delivery form a minority of all children and the concerns of such children will not form a large part of the overall agenda of the child voting constituency.
In contrast, it is important to highlight the fact that children are more likely than adults to be prepared to vote such as to give effect to the interests of children generally and are more likely to recognise and advance commonalities of interest with different groups of children than adults – who are already removed from the world of children generally and arguably share only limited interests with children – will be prepared to. Children will also vote to directly advance ‘child agendas’ rather than the current situation in which ‘children’s issues’ are addressed by law and policy-makers after having been mediated (and possibly distorted) through elections limited to adult participants. Indeed, the relative absence of child rights-related issues from political party manifestos worldwide (with the general exception of education) and the persistent failure in Ireland to address shortcoming in child service delivery and child poverty suggest strongly that politicians both here and abroad do not feel pressure from voting adults to bring about improvements in the situation of children.
Reducing the voting age from 18 to 17 would only constitute a small, initial step, both in terms of increasing child democratic participation and in improving political accountability in relation to child service delivery. It is to be hoped, however, that it would be the first in a series of reductions in voting age – a reduction that is consistent with developments in this area at the Council of Europe level (See, e.g., the motion for a resolution on Expansion of Democracy by Lowering the Voting Age to 16 that was presented by a Danish MP to the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly in May 2009) and in other jurisdictions (see, e.g., Austria, Ecuador and a number of British Crown Dependencies that have recently reduced the age of enfranchisement). Should the momentum towards lowering the voting age continue to develop, we may be faced with a sea-change in terms of child service delivery and the holding to account of those who fail to guarantee it.