The Politics of Lowering the Voting Age in Australia: Evaluating the Evidence

Updated: 7 March 2013

Ian McAllister
School of Politics and International Relations
Australian National University, Canberra

Abstract

There is a vigorous international debate about lowering the voting age to 16, with some jurisdictions already moving in this direction. Using evidence from Australia, this paper evaluates empirically the arguments put forward by supporters of lowering the voting age. The findings suggest that there is only partial support for lowering the voting age in order to bring it into line with other government-regulated activities. There is no evidence that lowering the voting age would increase political participation; indeed, the evidence points in the opposite direction. And despite the rapid expansion of university education, young people are no more politically knowledgeable today than they were in the past. Modelling the partisan impact of extending the vote to 16 and 17 year olds suggests little, if any, change. Overall, the arguments for lowering the voting age do not stand up to empirical scrutiny.

Introduction

One of the most significant postwar changes in the electoral systems of the established democracies has been the reduction in the voting age from 21 to 18 years. From in the 1960s onwards, most of the established democracies made this change, starting with Britain and Canada in 1970, the United States in 1971, and Australia and New Zealand in 1973 and 1974, respectively. The last major democracy to reduce the voting age to 18 was Switzerland in 1991. This change resulted in a large number of new voters appearing on the electoral register. In Australia, for example, 824 000 new voters were registered in the election immediately after the change, about double what would have been expected due to the increase in the size of the population.1

The public rapidly accepted the lowering of the voting age to 18 years; since the 1990s, the debate about the franchise shifted to reducing the age further, to 16. One widely held view is that this 'is an idea whose time has come'2 and that the change represents a logical and inevitable extension of the earlier reform. Lowering the voting age to 16 is advocated by a wide range of youth organizations, and promoted in numerous websites. It is also supported as formal policy by a diverse range of mainly left-leaning political parties, from the Liberal Democrats in Britain and the Greens in Australia, to Sinn Fein in Ireland and the Social Democrats in Denmark.

The current debates about reducing the voting age mirror those in the 1960s and 1970s about reducing the voting age to 18. In those earlier debates, supporters of the change pointed to equity with the age of military service and marriage, the need to stem declining election turnout rates, and the importance of imbuing civic values at an early age. Opponents of the change argued that 21 represented the legal age of majority and that those under 21 lacked the political interest or skill to be given the vote (for reviews, see Beck and Jennings, 1969; Megyery, 1991). As in previous debates, most of the arguments have been canvassed in government reports, and scholarly evidence to support the arguments has been thin on the ground.3

This paper evaluates empirically the arguments made in favour of reducing the voting age to 16. The data come mainly from the Australian Election Study surveys conducted since 1987. The first section examines the debates about lowering the voting age, in Australia and internationally. The second section outlines the distribution of public support for the change, among voters as well as election candidates, and what social factors underlie opinions. The third section presents and then evaluates the arguments that have been advanced in favour of the change, while the fourth section assesses the likely partisan consequences of reducing the voting age to 16.

The Debate About Lowering the Voting Age

Over the past 150 years the right to vote has moved from a privilege to an entitlement and the franchise has been extended to virtually all citizens. With this change has come the need to justify who to exclude from the franchise. The current criteria for exclusion are mainly threefold: those who are not citizens of the country in which they reside; who have been convicted of committing a crime; and who have not yet reached a certain minimum age. All three of these exclusionary requirements have been debated in Australia and raise major issues about the nature of the franchise (for reviews, see Kelly, 2012: chapter 4; Orr, 2010).

Citizenship has been questioned as the main basis for the right to vote in Australia on two grounds. First, the increasing trend towards countries permitting dual citizenship has made it possible for citizens of one country to vote in the elections of another country in which they hold citizenship. Currently around half of all states permit some form of dual citizenship (Faist, 2007). In this context, requiring citizenship as a right to vote has less validity, and around a quarter of all Australians in 1999 were estimated to have dual citizenship (see Millbank, 2000). Second, in 1984 the right to vote was restricted to Australian citizens, with the exception of British migrants who were already enrolled to vote. The government's 2009 green paper, Strengthening Australia's Democracy, argued that if this exemption were to remain, it would be more consistent to make the right to vote contingent on permanent residence rather than on citizenship.

The issue of permitting convicted criminals to vote has been highly contentious, in Australia as well as internationally (see Massicotte, Blais and Yoshinaka, 2004). While a policy of disenfranchising convicted criminals is maintained in the U.S. (Manza and Uggen, 2006), most European countries now permit prison inmates to vote and the Council of Europe has asked the United Kingdom to remove its ban, despite parliament voting in 2011 to continue disenfranchisement. In Australia, the High Court ruled in 2007 that criminals serving sentences under three years could have the right to vote (see Hughes and Costar, 2006; Koch and Hill, 2008; Orr, 2007). However, the requirements vary between the various states and territories and the issue has been widely debated (for a review, see Kelley, 2012: chapter 4).

Excluding from the franchise those who fall below a certain minimum age has become at least as contentious as the exclusions based on citizenship or criminality. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the mean voting age across the established democracies was around 24 years; by the end of the century, it had declined to just over 17 years (Hamilton, 2011). The current debate surrounds reducing the age further, from the widely accepted age of 18 years, to 16 years. To date, only one established democracy has reduced the age to 16 for national elections: in 2007 Austria implemented a minimum age of 16 for all elections, following its gradual adoption in various lander, starting in the early 2000s. Among the other European countries, Germany and Switzerland allow voting at 16 for some state and municipal elections but not for federal elections.

The debate over lowering the voting age has progressed farthest in the United Kingdom. The issue was first voted on by parliament in 1999, when it was overwhelmingly defeated; a subsequent private members' bill in 2005 was also defeated. Several independent reports have also examined the issue, and have been motivated mainly by the declining turnout in UK elections, which fell to 59.4 per cent in the 2001 election, the lowest turnout since 19184. A 2004 UK Electoral Commission report, Age of Electoral Majority, examined lowering the voting age, and included extensive survey evidence and attitudes to any change as well as explanations for them. The report concluded that 'there appears to be insufficient current justification for a change to the voting age at the present time' (UK Electoral Commission, 2004: 5). The report did, however, commit the Commission to revisiting the proposal within five to seven years.

In contrast to the Electoral Commission's conclusions, a 2006 report from the non-party Power Inquiry, funded by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, recommended voting at 16 as one of 30 proposals for increasing political participation and countering what it called Britain's 'democratic malaise.'5 In 2007 a green paper, The Governance of Britain, proposed a Youth Citizenship Commission to examine 'whether reducing the voting age would increase participation in the political process' (UK Parliament, 2007: 55). While voting at 16 has all but been ruled out at the national level in the UK, several subnational jurisdictions have introduced it, the first being the Isle of Man in 2006. In 2012 the UK and Scottish governments agreed that 16 and 17 year olds would be allowed to vote in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.6 And in November 2012 the Northern Ireland Assembly voted in favour of voting at 16, although the power to make the change is reserved to the Westminster parliament.

Following the lowering of the voting age to 18 in 1973 in Australia, there has been only periodic discussion about lowering the voting age further, and certainly nothing on the scale of the British debate on the subject. In 2004 a Victorian Electoral Commission discussion paper canvassing the advantages and disadvantages of lowering the voting age, although it relied mainly on survey evidence from the UK Electoral Commission's 2004 report (Victorian Electoral Commission, 2004). Following the election of the Rudd Labor government in 2007, the Australia 2020 Summit advanced the idea of allowing voluntary voting for those aged 16 to 18 years old, while voting would remain compulsory for those aged 18 or over and be accompanied by automatic enrolment. These proposals were also put forward in the 2008 Australia 2020 Youth Summit.

In 2009 the government's green paper, Strengthening Australia's Democracy, canvassed a wide range of measures for electoral reform, one of which was to lower the voting age to 16. The paper also raised for discussion the idea of whether voting for 16 and 17 year olds should be compulsory or optional, and whether different voting ages should be applied to different levels of government, as is the case in some other countries. To date, however, there has been no attempt to introduce legislation into parliament to reduce the voting age and the matter has remained in the area of discussion only.

Much of the debate about lowering the voting age, particularly in Britain where it has progressed farthest, has been conducted in government reports or through independent committees. While many of these reports do present evidence to support their arguments, much of it is partial and does extend beyond public opinion on the issue. There is little scholarly evaluation of the impact of such a change on electoral participation and on party support. The remaining sections of this paper present the evidence in these various areas.

Public Support for Lowering the Voting Age

During the 1960s, the publics in the established democracies were often evenly divided on reducing the voting age from 21 to 18, but they are currently much less supportive of a further reduction to 16. In the immediate postwar years, a particular impetus was the presence of large numbers of 18 to 20 year olds in the military; if they were old enough to fight for their country, so the argument went, then were old enough to vote. Thus, a national opinion poll conducted in the United States in June 1939 showed that just 17 per cent supported a lowering of the voting age to 18; by June 1943 that proportion had more than doubled, to 42 per cent, with 52 per cent opposing the change.7 Similar results were recorded in Canada, where public opinion was divided for most of the late 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. For example, in 1945, 47 per cent approved of lowering the voting age to 18, but by 1969 the same figure was only slightly higher, at 50 per cent (Pammett and Myles: 96).

By contrast, the publics across the established democracies are generally opposed to lowering the voting age from 18 to 16. The 2004 UK Electoral Commission report, Age of Electoral Majority, commissioned a national public opinion survey which found that just 22 per cent favoured lowering the voting age to 16. Even in Scotland, which has implemented voting at 16 for the 2014 referendum, just 36 per cent say that they favour the lower age for the referendum and 35 per cent for voting in all UK elections.8 In Australia, the public is also opposed to lowering the voting age. Table 1 shows that 94 per cent of the respondents in the 2010 Australian Election Study opposed any change, with 72 per cent saying that the age should 'definitely stay at 18'. Indeed, if anything, Australian public opinion is more emphatically opposed to lowering the age than is found elsewhere. Overall, just 6 per cent of the electorate favour any change.

Table 1: Voter and Candidate Views of Lowering the Voting Age, 2010
  Voters (%) Candidates (%)
Definitely lower to 16 3 15
Probably lower to 16 3 16
Probably stay at 18 22 27
Definitely stay at 18 72 42
Total 100 100
(N) (2 050) (246)

The question was: 'Do you think that the voting age in elections should be lowered to 16, or should it stay at 18?'
Sources: Australian Election Study 2010; Australian Candidate Study, 2010.

Table 2: Factors Affecting Support for Lowering the Voting Age, 2010
  Partial (SE)
Gender (male) .07* (.03)
Age (decades) -.10** (.01)
Urban resident .00 (.01)
Birthplace (Australia)    
  English speaking country .15* (.07)
  Non-English speaking country .17** (.05)
Tertiary education .06 (.04)
Trade union member .16** (.04)
Family income (quintiles) -.06** (.01)
  Constant 1.91  
  Adj R-squared .07  
  (N) (2 050)  

**, statistically significant at p<.01, *, p<.05.
Ordinary least squares regression estimates showing partial (b) and standard errors (SEs) predicting the probability of supporting lowering the voting age. Source: Australian Election Study 2010.

The most obvious factor influencing support for votes at 16 is likely to be age, with younger people being more supportive than older people. Indeed, most of the advocacy groups campaigning for the change are run by young people and youth organizations. The correlation with age is confirmed by several surveys, notably the UK Electoral Commission's survey conducted as part of their discussion paper (UK Electoral Commission, 2004: 82–83; see also Beck and Jennings, 1969: 370). This is also confirmed in Table 2, which shows the impact of various social structural factors on reducing the voting age to 16. The impact of age is by far the largest in the model. The second most important factor is family income, with those on lower incomes being more likely to support the change, other things being equal. Several other factors are worthy of note. Trade union members are more likely to support the change, as are migrants to Australia, especially those from non-English speaking countries.

Public opinion in Australia is, then, overwhelmingly opposed to lowering the voting age to 16. The pattern of opinion is more strongly opposed than is found elsewhere, most notably in Britain. This may reflect the fact that the lower voting age has been more extensively debated in Britain and is already mandated in several subnational jurisdictions, so the public is more receptive to the change. Nevertheless, as the UK Youth Citizenship Commission points out (2009: 4), 'public opinion is divided and does not assist us.' is found elsewhere, younger respondents are more likely to favour the change, other things being equal, but again are more in favour. The general opposition of major party election candidates to the change suggests that in the medium term at least, there is little likelihood of reducing the voting age in Australia.

Evaluating the Arguments for Lowering the Voting Age

A variety of arguments have been advanced to support lowering the vote age to 16, in Australia and internationally. These arguments generally follow certain common themes and fall within three broad categories.9 The first is equity, and it is argued that the minimum age for voting needs to be reduced to bring it into line with other government-regulated activities. A second argument that is commonly advanced concerns political participation, and a lower voting age is seen as essential in order to reverse the decline in turnout and increase civic engagement across the established democracies. The third argument focuses on education, and stresses the greater maturity of contemporary 16 and 17 year olds compared with their counterparts 20 or 30 years ago due to better education and information. The empirical basis for each of these arguments is evaluated below.

Equity

Equity arguments gained considerable currency when the voting age was last lowered. This was the period when the U.S. was embroiled in Vietnam War and of the more than 58 000 soldiers who died in that conflict, one-fifth were less than 20 years old.10 The large number of casualties among the young gave rise to the slogan 'old enough to vote, old enough to fight'.11 This, coupled with extensive civil rights legislation in the 1960s and the rise of the youth culture, paved the way for the lowering of the voting age in U.S., as well as in many other countries (Cultice, 1992).

Similar equity arguments have been made to justify lowering the voting age to 16. In Australia, the age of appearing in an adult court and being free to marry is 18 in most circumstances, but other government-regulated activities have a lower minimum age, such as military service and obtaining a driving licence, which are both set at 17 (see Table 3). However, there are relatively few activities which have a minimum age of 16, with the exception of the age of consent and holding a firearms licence. In short, there is only partial evidence to support an equity argument.

Table 3: Minimum Ages for Selected Activities
Responsibility Age Notes
Age in adult court 18 17 in Queensland
Marriage 18 16 if both parents consent
Alcohol consumption 18 Possession and consumption
Military service 17 Application can be made from 16 years, 6 months
Vehicle licence 17 18 in Victoria, 16 years 6 months in the Northern Territory
Sexual consent 16 17 in Tasmania; other ages apply depending on type of act and circumstances
Pilot licence 17 16 for balloons and gliders
Firearms licence 14 Some variations between states and territories

A related equity argument concerns taxation, and it is argued that 16 and 17 year olds pay tax so they should therefore have the right to vote under the principle of 'no taxation without representation.' However, this logic applies equally to those under 16, as well as to tourists and to temporary residents who also pay tax. In any event, most of those in this age category are school students who are financially dependent on their parents. They therefore may pay indirect tax on what they buy, but few will pay income tax.

Political Participation

A second argument that is advanced to justify lowering the voting age is that it will enhance political participation. In countries that have voluntary voting, supporters of the change argue that 'lowering the voting age will increase voter turnout … the earlier in life a habit is formed the more likely that habit or interest will continue throughout life.'12 As voting has declined across almost all of the established democracies (see Dalton and Wattenberg, 2002; Franklin, 2004), one way of arresting the decline in turnout might be to reduce the voting age.

The argument that lowering the voting age will increase turnout is not supported by the evidence. Blais (2000, 2006) and many others have shown that turnout increases with age, so that, other things being equal, turnout should be higher if the minimum voting age is 21 rather than 18. In a study of 324 national elections across 91 countries, Blais and Dobrzynska (1998: 246) found that 'everything else being equal, turnout is reduced by almost two points when the voting age is lowered one year.' Lowering the voting age from 21 to 18 therefore reduced turnout by about 5 per centage points. Franklin (2004), analyzing a smaller group of countries, estimated the decline in turnout due to lowering the vote age to be about 3 per centage points.

The evidence from 14 established democracies that lowered the voting age between 1970 and 1992 suggests that in the majority of cases, turnout declined. The estimate is made by comparing the average turnout in the two national elections prior to the change with the average turnout in the two national elections following the change.13 Across the 14 countries in Table 4, turnout decreased by an average of 2.7 per cent, ranging from 9.3 per cent in France to 0.5 per cent in Ireland. Turnout increased in only two of the 14 countries: Germany, where it increased by 4.2 per cent; and Sweden, where it increased by 2.4 per cent.

Table 4: Turnout Before and After Lowering the Vote to 18, Selected Countries
    Turnout (per cent)  
  Year vote lowered Before After Change
Canada 1970 75.8 74.1 -1.7
Germany 1970 86.7 90.9 +4.2
United Kingdom 1970 76.5 75.5 -1.0
United States 1971 92.7 87.9 -4.8
Finland 1972 81.8 74.6 -7.2
Sweden 1972 88.9 91.3 +2.4
Ireland 1973 76.8 76.3 -0.5
France 1974 80.6 71.3 -9.3
New Zealand 1974 89.9 84.0 -5.9
Italy 1975 93.0 91.9 -1.1
Denmark 1978 88.5 86.7 -1.8
Spain 1978 77.0 74.0 -3.0
Switzerland 1991 48.2 44.2 -4.0
Austria 1992 88.3 84.2 -4.1
(Mean)   81.8 79.1 -2.7

Turnout figures are the average for the two elections before the change and the two elections after. All estimates are for parliamentary elections except for the U.S. which is presidential.
Source: International IDEA.

Australia's compulsory voting system makes any similar test of turnout irrelevant. However, we can model the effects of age on electoral participation by using a question in the AES which asked the respondents if they would vote if voting was voluntary. In order to make these estimates, the 2007 and 2010 AES surveys are combined, so as to provide a sufficiently large sample size for the various age categories.14 Across the combined sample, 86 per cent of the respondents said that they would have turned out to vote if voting had been voluntary. This is a high figure but equates to turnout in the Netherlands following the abolition of compulsory voting in 1971: in the election immediately following that change, turnout was 79.1 per cent, and in the second election after the change, it was 83.1 per cent. The estimates presented here are therefore close to what we might expect turnout to be in Australia in an election conducted immediately after the abolition of compulsory voting.

The estimates by age group in Figure 1 show that intended turnout is lowest among the youngest groups–71 per cent among those aged 18 to 20, and 68 per cent among those aged 21 to 23. Thereafter turnout increases significantly, rising to 92 per cent among those aged in their early 30s, before dropping away slightly among those aged in their late 30s and early 40s. This is a lifecycle effect, and reflects the pressures on time due to work and family commitments. For most of the remaining age groups, intended turnout is generally stable, at around 90 per cent.

Figure 1: Intended Turnout by Age, 2007 and 2010 Combined
Intended turnout by age, 2007 and 2010 combined

The question was: 'Would you have voted in the election if voting had not been compulsory?' Estimates are 'definitely' or 'fairly' likely to vote by age. Age is measured in three year categories, up to 67 when four year categories are used.
Sources: Australian Election Studies, 2007 and 2010.

A related argument that is often used by supporters of lowering the voting age is that sooner people begin voting, the more likely they are to participate in elections in later life. The logic, then, is that if people vote at an earlier age, then the habit of voting will become more strongly entrenched. Start, more likely to do it. However, as we saw earlier, the lowering of the voting age to 18 resulted in lower turnout, so the newly enfranchised 18 year olds will have learned abstention rather than voting. Franklin (2004) shows evidence to support this and points out that a small decline in turnout is magnified over successive age cohorts; he argues that the declining turnout observed across many established democracies is a consequence of lowering the voting age in the early 1970s. As he puts it, 'the socializing experience of the act of voting (or non-voting) will have tended to lock in the lower turnout of the newly enfranchised 18 year olds' (p.64).

Testing this hypothesis in the context of Australia is problematic because of compulsory voting. Moreover, other possible measures, such as campaign participation, have been asked consistently only since the mid–1990s. In any event, it is unclear that voting at 16 would achieve more than is the case now with voting at 18.

Political Maturity

In the debates about lowering the voting age to 18 in the 1960s, a major argument was that the young were more politically mature compared to their counterparts in previous generations. As Edward Kennedy put it in 1970 speech on the subject, 'our 18 year-olds today are a great deal more mature and more sophisticated than former generations at the same stage of development.'15 Similar arguments are advanced today about reducing the voting age to 16; as one youth organization comments, 'if we let stupid adults vote, why not let smart youth vote?'16 Certainly the postwar expansion of the educational system, and particularly the tertiary sector since the 1960s, has given increasingly large numbers of young people the opportunity to attend university. In 1967, just 3 per cent of the electorate reported having a university degree; in 2010 that figure had climbed to 28 per cent (McAllister, 2011: 59). Among those aged in their 20s in the 2010 AES, just over half possessed a university degree.

The expansion of tertiary education is assumed to have significant effects on citizens' political skills, by fostering cognitive mobilization. In turn, this produces politically sophisticated electors with the ability to process and interpret the political information that they accumulate in their day-to-day lives, through the mass media and in social interactions with others (Dalton, 2007). What is the evidence that increasing education within the electorate is generating more politically mature younger voters? Political maturity can be measured in a variety of ways. It is most commonly measured by interest in politics and by political knowledge, both of which are asked in the AES surveys.

Political interest is generally lower among young people than among their older counterparts (see, for example, Russell et al, 2002). The trends for Australia in Figure 2 for the 2007 and 2010 surveys combined confirm the importance of age in shaping political interest. Among the two youngest age groups, just 17 per cent said they were interested in politics 'a good deal', compared to around 50 per cent for those aged over 60. As with intended turnout, there is a slight decline in interest among those aged in their late 30s and early 40s, before the strong upward trend again resumes. These trends are very close to those found in Britain, which show a continuous upward trend across virtually the whole lifecycle, as is found here (Chan and Clayton, 2006: 542–3).

Figure 2: Political Interest by Age, 2007 and 2010 Combined
Political interest by age, 2007 and 2010 combined

The question was: 'Generally speaking, how much interest do you usually have in what's going on in politics?' Estimates are 'good deal' of interest. Age is measured in three year categories, up to 67 when four year categories are used.
Sources: Australian Election Studies, 2007 and 2010.

From the perspective of the argument that younger people are more mature now than they were in the past, the test is whether younger voters are more interested in politics now than they were previously. Figure 3 tests this hypothesis using the 1967 to 1979 Australian National Political Attitudes Surveys, and the 1987 to 2010 Australian Election Study surveys. The estimates show the per cent who say they are interested in politics 'a good deal', for the total electorate and for those aged under 25 only.17

Over the 1967–2010 period as a whole, the trend for the total electorate shows increasing interest, starting with 18 per cent saying they were interested in politics 'a good deal', increasing to 27 per cent in 1979 and peaking at 39 per cent in 2007. Indeed, from 1987 onwards, never fewer than one in three of the electorate express a strong interest in politics. By contrast, political interest among the young remains at a low level, despite the upward trends among the electorate as a whole. In 1967 just 3 per centage points separate the young from the electorate as a whole; by 1987 the gap had widened to 19 points and it remains at that level for the whole 1987 to 2010 period. The evidence, then, does not support an increase in political maturity, at least as far as it is measured by political interest.

Figure 3: Political Interest Among the Young, 1967–2010
Political interest among the young, 1967–2010

See Figure 2 for question wording.
Sources: Australian National Political Attitudes Surveys 1967–79, Australian Election Study 1987–2010.

A second measure of political maturity is political knowledge. While political knowledge can be defined in various ways, there is a main distinction between factual knowledge that covers events, personalities and institutions, and background knowledge, which covers concepts and procedures.18 Since 1996 (but with the exception of the 2004 study) the AES has asked the respondents to say whether six factual questions concerning the Australian political system were true to false.19 Over the period of the surveys, the factual political knowledge of the electorate has remained remarkably constant, despite the parallel and very substantial increase in the amount of civic education that is available in schools. In 1996, for example, the average voter could answer just 2.3 out of the six questions correctly; by 2010 that had increased only marginally, to 2.4 questions (McAllister, 2011: 67).

In order to test the hypothesis that younger people are becoming more politically mature, Table 5 shows the mean values for the correct number of answers for those aged 25 years or more, and for those aged 18 to 24 only. As we would expect, there is a substantial gap in the number of correct mentions between the younger and older groups, ranging from 0.42 in the 1996 survey to 0.71 in 2007 and averaging 0.57 over the period. To put this in context, the average older voter could correctly answer almost two and a half questions out of the total of six questions, while the average younger voter could correctly answer less than two questions. This is a substantial gap, and one that appears not to have diminished over the period of the four surveys.

Table 5: Political Knowledge by Age, 1996–2010
  Mean correct mentions (0 to 6)  
  Total electorate Age 18–24 only (Significance)
1996 2.33 1.91 (t=2.593 p=.190)
  (N) (1 572) (134)  
2001 2.28 1.59 (t=4.639 p=<.000)
  (N) (1 743) (138)  
2007 2.44 1.97 (t=2.845 p=<.000)
  (N) (1 633) (115)  
2010 2.48 1.77 (t=5.872 p=<.000)
  (N) (1 837) (223)  

The question was: 'And finally, a quick quiz on Australian government. For each of the following statements, please say whether it is true or false. If you don't know the answer, cross the "don't know" box and try the next one.' See Appendix for details of statements.
Sources: Australian Election Studies 1996, 2001, 2007, 2010.

According to Chan and Clayton (2006: 542), 'political maturity is the pivotal issue in the debate over the voting age.' Based on the evidence presented here, the increasing prevalence of tertiary education within the electorate has not resulted in greater political maturity. Political interest remains relatively low, while it has increased across the population, and political knowledge remains significantly lower among the young than among older voters. There are, of course, limitations in these estimates. Political interest is only one measure of political involvement, and it may not measure the potential of young people to be engaged with the political process (see Dalton, 2008). Similarly, the political knowledge items reflect factual knowledge only and are also available only over a short period. Nevertheless, the results do question the assertion that young people are politically more mature now than in the past.

The Electoral Consequences of Lowering the Voting Age

Who votes can often determine the outcome of an election, particularly in a closely fought contest. Studies of turnout show that there are often distinct partisan biases based on the level of turnout (for a review, see Blais, 2007). Equally, changes to the franchise can introduce (or in some cases, exclude) groups from the electorate, with subsequent effects on party support. Such effects can be magnified in an electoral system that has compulsory voting, such as Australia's, since the newly enfranchised groups are required to vote. Based on Australian Bureau of Statistics data for June 2010, there were an estimated 589 000 residents aged 16 or 17 within the population. If the voting age was lowered to include them, then around 474 000 extra voters would come into the electoral roll, or around 3 per cent of the total electorate.

Modelling the partisan impact of lowering the voting age involves two main assumptions. First, since we do not have voting intention for 16 or 17 year olds in the AES surveys, we assume that their vote would be similar to those aged 18 or 19. Second, we assume that the enrolment of 16 to 17 year olds will be similar to that of 18 or 19 year olds. Table 6 presents the estimates, using the assumption. In order to increase the sample size so we have reasonable numbers of 18 to 19 year old respondents, the results from the 2004, 2007 and 2010 AES surveys are combined.20

Table 6: Modelling the Partisan Impact of Lowering the Voting Age, 2004–10 Combined
  Labor Lib-Nat Green Other Total (N)
Current (18+) 39.9 45.0 9.6 5.5 100.0 (5 240)
18–19 only 38.8 37.1 14.7 9.4 100.0 (116)
If voting age lowered 39.9 44.8 9.7 5.6 100.0 (5 356)
  (Change) (–) (-0.2) (+0.1) (+0.1)    

Estimates assume that the voting of 16–17 year olds will be the same as 18–19 year olds. 'Other' includes Australian Democrat.
Sources: Australian Election Studies 2004, 2007, 2010.

The first line of Table 6 shows that 39.9 per cent of the combined 2004–07 respondents voted Labor, while 45.0 per cent voted Liberal or National and a further 9.6 per cent voted Green. Among those aged 18 or 19 at the time of the surveys, the Liberal–National vote was substantially less–37.1 per cent–while the Green and Other vote was substantially more. The third line of Table 6 adds the 18 and 19 year olds to the model and assumes they are 16 or 17 year olds. The results show that in this scenario the Labor vote would remain unchanged, the Liberal–National vote would decline by 0.2 per cent and Green and the Other vote would increase by 0.1 per cent. These are small changes, and reflect the fact that 16 to 17 year olds would represent little more than 3 per cent of an enlarged electorate, and the fact that their vote is not significantly different from the electorate as a whole.

Conclusion

The debate about the appropriate voting age raises a range of complex normative and empirical issues, including the definition of citizenship, the appropriate threshold for adulthood, and the nature of the franchise. In the U.S., the debates in the 1960s about lowering the voting age were driven by fears about escalating student protests on university campuses and the ethics of allowing 18 to 19 year olds to fight in Vietnam but not to vote; these concerns loomed large with legislators. While lowering the voting age had first been proposed in 1942, it was not enacted until 1971; the twenty-sixth amendment to the constitution was the fastest ratifications of any legislation in U.S. history (Cheng, 2008: 1). The ease of its ratification contrasts sharply with the long process and bitter debate surrounding extending the franchise to women which was embodied in the nineteenth amendment.

The debate about lowering the voting age to 16 is relatively recent. While it is a significant issue in Britain, it has been little discussed in Australia and is not supported by any major party, with the exception of the Greens. The evidence presented here suggests relatively little empirical support for main arguments used by advocates of lowering the voting age. The evidence, however, is partial; the analyses have largely assumed that 18 and 19 year olds are behaviorally similar to 16 or 17 year olds. That assumption may be questionable, but it would be surprising if a survey of 16 or 17 year olds yielded dramatically different results to those presented here. If the voting age was lowered, the results suggest that the distribution of party support would remain little changed, presumably a relief to concerned politicians.

Lowering the voting age might have other consequences, beyond enfranchising around 500 000 additional voters. It would raise issues about ensuring that these new voters were properly enrolled and that they turned out to vote–assumed their vote was compulsory. It would also raise the issue of the age at which persons could stand for election. In most countries the age of candidacy has moved in tandem with the voting age. But should 16 year olds voters also be eligible to be MPs or senators? A change might also raise the issue of enfranchising even younger groups, such as 14 or 15 year olds. And if that eventuated, the argument might be to apply a common citizenship test to all citizens prior to letting them have the vote.

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Prepared for the AEC Electoral Research Forum, 19–20 Nov 2012, Canberra.

The views expressed in this paper are those of the author, and do not represent the views of the Australian Electoral Commission or the Australian Government.


  1. Between 1972 and 1974 the registered electorate rose from 7 074 070 to 7 898 922, an increase of 824 852. Concurrently, the population rose from 12 960 000 to 13 340 000, an increase of 380 000. See www.idea.int/vt/countryview.cfm?id=15
  2. www.youthrights.org/issues/voting-age/. Accessed 6 November 2012.
  3. Notable exceptions are Chan and Clayton (2006), Cowley and Denver (2003) and Pammett and Myles (1991).
  4. The 1918 election was itself affected by the disruption caused by the end of the First World War and the extension of the franchise to women aged over 30. Turnout increased slightly, to 61.4 per cent in 2005, and 65.1 per cent in 2010.
  5. The other means were decentralizing power, reforming the electoral system and introducing citizen-initiated legislation. See Power to the People, available at www.parliament.uk/documents/commons/lib/snpc-03948.pdf. Accessed 10 November 2012.
  6. Paragraph 10 of the agreement between the two government states: 'The Scottish Government's consultation on the referendum also set out a proposal for extending the franchise to allow 16 and 17 year-olds to vote in the referendum. It will be for the Scottish Government to decide whether to propose extending the franchise for this referendum and how that should be done. It will be for the Scottish Parliament to approve the referendum franchise, as it would be for any referendum on devolved matters.' See www.number10.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Agreement-final-for-signing.pdf. Accessed 11 November 2012.
  7. trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/11344447. Accessed 9 November 2012.
  8. See research.yougov.co.uk/news/2012/11/05/scots-against-lowering-voting-age/. Accessed 12 November 2012.
  9. The arguments for and against are summarized in Cowley and Denver (2007) and Folkes (2007).
  10. This is sourced from www.vhfcn.org/stat.html#CACF. Accessed 6 November 2012. The average age of the 58 148 who were killed was 23.1 years.
  11. In the United States, Edward Kennedy, a strong advocate of lowering the vote to 18, put it as follows: 'At the very least, the opportunity to vote should be granted in recognition of the risks an 18 year-old is obliged to assume when he is sent off to fight and perhaps die for his country.'
  12. www.youthrights.org/issues/voting-age/top-ten-reasons-to-lower-the-voting-age/. Accessed 11 November 2012.
  13. Australia and Belgium are excluded because they have compulsory voting, and the Netherlands is excluded because compulsory voting was abolished in the year that the voting age was lowered. The pre-change estimate for Spain is based on one election, as only one election was held after the fall of the Franco dictatorship prior to the change.
  14. An examination of the distribution of responses by age between the two surveys showed little or no differences.
  15. tedkennedy.org/ownwords/event/voting_age. Accessed 10 November 2012.
  16. www.youthrights.org/issues/voting-age/top-ten-reasons-to-lower-the-voting-age/#10 Accessed 12 November 2012.
  17. In the 1967 and 1969 surveys the young are aged 21 to 24, and from 1979 onwards, 18 to 24.
  18. There are known difficulties and limitations in measuring political knowledge. For reviews, see Mondak (1999, 2001).
  19. The questions were: 'Australia became a Federation in 1901'; 'The Senate election is based on proportional representation'; 'The Constitution can only be changed by the High Court'; 'No-one may stand for Federal Parliament unless they pay a deposit'; 'The longest time allowed between Federal elections for the House of Representatives is four years'; 'There are 75 members of the House of Representatives'. Statements 1, 2 and 4 are correct, statements 3, 5 and 6 are incorrect.
  20. Earlier surveys were not included because of the complication of the Australian Democrats, which were effectively replaced by the Greens from the 2004 election onwards.