Estonia mulls lowering national election voting age to 16

Voting on Election Day at Värska Cultural Center, a polling place in Electoral District 11 (Võru, Valga and Põlva counties). March 5, 2023.
Voting on Election Day at Värska Cultural Center, a polling place in Electoral District 11 (Võru, Valga and Põlva counties). March 5, 2023. Source: Aili Vahtla/ERR

Sixteen-year-olds may be given the right to vote in national elections under plans put forward by Estonia's new coalition. The voting age was lowered to 16 at local elections in 2017.

The Reform-Eesti 200-Social Democrats (SDE) coalition agreed to seek cross-party support for the move during coalition negotiations. At the moment only citizens over the age of 18 can vote in national elections.

Reform's Rigiikogu faction Chairman Erkki Keldo told ERR it is positive that young people were able to exercise their democratic rights at the local elections in 2017 and 2021. Now, the ruling parties want to initiate a discussion on lowering the voting age for Riigikogu elections.

"That's what we agreed in the coalition talks, but since such major changes are made by political consensus, we would like to talk to all the political forces and find out whether or not there is common ground and support," he said.

All three coalition parties support starting discussions over the issue. Eesti 200's manifesto included a pledge on the same theme while SDE's Jevgeni Ossinovski believes many party members are in favor, but said the idea needs to be studied further.

Erkki Keldo. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Approximately, 26,000 16-17-year-old voters participated in the 2021 local government elections, data from the National Electoral Service shows.

Opposition parties are split over the idea

Center's Riigikogu faction Vice-Chairman Andrei Korobeinik said the party supports lowering the voting age. He said democracy is strengthened by higher voter turnout and engagement.

But, he said the move is unlikely to benefit his party.

"The average Center Party voter tends to be an elderly person, but how to attract young voters is a serious challenge for the Center Party and I think lowering the voting age would also stimulate the Center Party to think more about issues that are important to young people," he said.

EKRE MP Jaak Valge said his party does not support the move.

"EKRE's position is the same as what my 16-year-old son said to me this morning, that it is too soon to give young people the right to vote, that young people are too impressionable," he said.

Jaak Valge Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

He said 16 and 17-year-olds are still developing and their electoral preferences are more volatile. Valge said often young people have the initial support base for many political ideologies, such as communism or Nazism,

"I don't want to say anything bad about young people, but the fact is that young people are more easily influenced," he added.

Isamaa's Chairman Helir-Valdor Seeder said the party does have a position on lowering the voting age, but he does not support it.

"I think that people who go to the polls should have more experience of civic life. After all, it is not only the members of the government or parliament or the heads of local authorities who have a responsibility to organize our lives, but all citizens. There has to be a certain level of maturity and experience of life, and I think that people under the age of 18 don't have enough of that yet," Seeder said.

He said young people should look for different ways to engage with society, such as joining civic associations, youth organizations and local government's youth councils.

SDE, Eesti 200 likely to gain most support

Alar Kilp, a lecturer in comparative politics at the Johan Skytte Institute of the University of Tartu, said Eesti 200 and SDE would likely benefit from lowering the voting age.

A Kantar Emor survey commissioned by ERR at the end of March showed support among the 18-24-year-old age group was higher for both parties than among the general population.

Polling from March 30, 2023. Source: ERR News

Kilp said lowering the voting age can lead to higher levels of political participation in the long run. He said research shows that if students participate in democratic processes during school they are more like to vote in the future.

"This is also shown by studies that 16 and 17-year-olds who go to school and live at home with their parents have socialization links. They have friends they have stayed at home with for years, classmates and parents. Young people in this age group could have a greater interest in politics because they can engage in politics in their social circles, which have been relatively stable for a long time," Kilp said.

The researcher said those in the slightly older age group, 19 and 20-year-olds, may lose interest in politics because they engage with the government on a smaller level — for example, they are most not employed and do not have children — and their social circles have changed.

Triin Roos, CEO of the Estonian National Youth Council, also said voting at a young age can be habit forming. She said young people must be taught to engage with society.

Voting on Election Day at Värska Cultural Center, a polling place in Electoral District 11 (Võru, Valga and Põlva counties). March 5, 2023. Source: Aili Vahtla/ERR

"When we talk about the habit formation of the active citizenship, school plays a big role, or if we make additional changes in education, we will reach a point where at some point the general turnout is higher and people are used to participating in society," she said.

Political scientist: Young people should not be pressured

Klip said one argument against lowering the voting age is that people need more information to participate in national elections as there is a wider range of issues that can be influenced.

But he added that if the age limit is lowered young people should not be pressured into voting.

"It would be a very negative thing if young people faced a negative campaign that said go out and vote because if you don't, bad things will happen. If young people are put under pressure, they may not be in a position to make that choice for themselves. Studies show that when the first electoral experience is negative, it leaves a long-lasting imprint," he added.

Roos believes voting ages for both the Riigikogu and European Parliament elections should be lower as well as the age for standing as a candidate from 21 to 18. The latter two issues will not be discussed by the government at present.

Lowering the voting age requires the Constitution which can be a lengthy process.


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Editor: Urmet Kook, Helen Wright

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