Sixteen-year-olds among most active and independent voters

Estonian research suggests young people more active at elections than average voter.
Estonian research suggests young people more active at elections than average voter. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Advance voting is underway in the second local government council elections in Estonia in which young people 16-18 years of age are allowed to vote. They are more eager voters compared to 20-30-year-olds and the average voter, Anu Toots, professor of social policy at Tallinn University, said. According to Toots, having few financial links to the state makes more independent decision-makers out of young people.

"We are used to the voting age being 18 years, while a quick look at the West suggests that it might have been 21 or even 30 as recently as until the early 1970s," Toots said.

The U.K. was the first country to bring the voting age down to 18 in 1969. Germany and the U.S. followed a few years later. The debate was fueled in the U.S. by the Vietnam War – while 18-year-olds were obligated to go to war, they were not allowed to demonstrate their opposition by voting. "This led to the understanding that there needs to be a better balance between rights and obligations," the professor explained.

The voting age coming down is therefore rather a social process based on the idea that democracy requires everyone's participation, Toots suggested. "We understand today that young people are a part of society and have the right to make their own decisions," she said.

The world has a few dozen countries where minors are allowed to vote. Voting rights can be very different. "Federal countries that have elections on multiple levels tend to give 16-year-olds the right to vote in state or municipal elections," she described. Young people are also allowed to participate in parliamentary elections in south American countries, but also Malta and Austria. Minors can only vote in local elections in some German states, Scotland and Estonia.

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Anu Toots said that there is little research available on elections and voter turnout among young people in Estonia. Research is available on the more extensive experience of Austria and Germany. Existing studies suggest young people 16 and 26 years of age behave quite differently as voters. "So-called first-time voters, whether they are 16 or 18, tend to be more active than 23-30-year-olds," the professor said.

There are several explanations for this difference. "One is that very young voters are usually still settled in one place. They go to school, usually live with their parents and still feel they belong in a particular place," she said. After graduating from high school, young people tend to go on the move, with some going to university, others to work or abroad, becoming seeds flying in the wind looking for their place, Toots said. "They often do not feel tied to anything, especially looking at municipal elections turnout. Students usually do not care who is in power in their university town or what the long-term plan is," the professor said.

Research done in Estonia suggests the youngest voters are more active than other groups. However, this activity hardly manifests as underage voters make up a very small part of the population. "Studies do not show whether this activity is retained as people get older," she added.

"The other fundamental conclusion from international research is that involving young people tends to render results more volatile." In other words, having more young voters means the results are more difficult to forecast because young people are more prone to changing their preferences. Toots added that volatility is also a broader trend as adult voters also tend to change their minds more often than in the 1970s.

Studies carried out in various countries suggest that young people usually do not support populist and radical right-wing parties. "It is to be expected that young people prefer green parties. While youths tend to favor left-wing parties, there is not much in it, Toots said.

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Toots said that in addition to being more active, 16-year-old voters are mature enough to make informed decisions. "Sociological studies show that a 16-year-old is no dumber than a 26-year-old," she remarked. "Development psychology tells us that core value and social attitudes develop in the early teenage period."

Modern curricula also include advertising studies that should help young people see through elections agitation, the professor suggested. That said, elections campaigns in Estonia rarely address young people or anyone for that matter. "Campaigns in Estonia are very self-centered. Parties and candidates mainly advertise themselves, instead of telling people that 'you are our target group' or 'this is the main thing we will be addressing'," Toots said.

She finds that a person who has newly graduated from ninth grade can have a better idea of society than someone who graduated from high school decades ago. "Another factor speaking in young people's favor is the fact they aren't as financially dependent on the state. They do not receive a pension and there are very few benefits for young people," she explained. The professor believes that this makes a young voter more independent.

Toots said, however, that young people's independence is put to the test in parties' youth organizations. "Personally, I believe it is good if a young person is politically active," she said, adding that a person is bound to get their political education somewhere. But the in-house culture of parties can be a cause for concern. "If the party is corrupt and only promotes based on loyalty and obedience, that is not something young people should emulate," she said, pointing to the danger of becoming a political decoy duck.

Could 14-year-olds be allowed to vote in Estonia one day? Toots described it as entirely possible as the voting age has traditionally come down. "Thinking to emotional debates concerning the age of sexual self-determination, the age of 14 is considered. There are salaried employees, entrepreneurs and investors among people 14-15 years of age – therefore it would be natural for them to have a say in matters of the state. I would definitely not rule out the voting age being lowered further in the perceivable future," she said.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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