Thursday, 23 June 2022
An Bille um an Naoú Leasú is Tríocha ar an mBunreacht (Ceart Vótála ag Aois 16) 2021: An Dara Céim [Comhaltaí Príobháideacha] - Thirty-ninth Amendment of the Constitution (Right to Vote at 16) Bill 2021: Second Stage [Private Members]
I have to say the Government amendment is disappointing. Normally we do not have the amendment before the debate starts. What the amendment is proposing is that the next election will have taken place before Second Stage will be taken. That is disappointing, and every young person in Ireland will find it disappointing. I am delighted to bring the Thirty-ninth Amendment of the Constitution (Right to Vote at 16) Bill to the Chamber and I am looking forward to hearing contributions from other Deputies on it. The Bill quite simply seeks to amend Article 16 of the Constitution to reduce the age of eligibility to vote in Dáil elections from 18 years to 16 years.
I thank the students of St. Catherine's Vocational School in Killybegs. The student council there has been following and contributing to the Bill since I introduced it last May. It is a pity the debate is taking place during the school holidays but we could not avoid it because of the scheduling. When the students came to Leinster House last month we discussed lowering the voting age and what the Bill would mean if enacted. This is essentially what is at the heart of the Bill. It is about listening to young people and giving them a voice to express their views should they want to do so. I had hoped the Government would allow the legislation to progress but we now know it will not. We could have had an opportunity to discuss the Bill further when the young people return to school in September but we will have to wait until June 2023 if we are still here.
One of great things about legislation such as this which includes young people is that it fosters great discussion and healthy debate. This should only be encouraged. It proves how involved young people become once we give them the opportunity and space to do so. I thank the National Youth Council of Ireland and all the team there. It has been campaigning for voting rights for 16- and 17-year-olds since 2009 and has done fantastic research on this issue. It will have to campaign for a bit longer to make sure it comes to pass. I also thank the Irish Second-Level Students Union for all the work it has done on this. We are joined by young people from both bodies in the Gallery and I warmly welcome them. They are the faces behind the campaigning and it is great to see so many young people take an interest in this issue. It completely disproves the point that young people are not interested in politics. I am very glad they are here to watch this debate take place today. There are also many young people watching this debate at home. I acknowledge it would not be happening without all these young voices pushing for change. I acknowledge again the great work of Senators Lynn Ruane and Fintan Warfield, who brought forward legislation in the Seanad to allow 16-year-olds to vote in local and European elections and did extensive research into youth participation.
I see no reason 16-year-olds should not be allowed to vote. Any argument I have heard against allowing 16-year-olds a vote seems to leave out the very important point that voting is optional. Young people who are not interested in politics will not vote. It is as simple as that. There are many older people who are not interested in politics and who do not vote. This simply is not a good enough reason not to allow them the opportunity to do so should they wish. There are also many older people who are not interested in politics who do vote, which makes a difference. This same point can be made to those who think young people will not take voting seriously. There are many people of all ages who do not take voting seriously and who can vote on a whim. It would be ridiculous to dictate who votes on how informed they are. People certainly do not suddenly become well informed when they reach 18 years of age. People come to politics and voting in their own time when it is right for them. For some this is at the age of 40, while for others, it is at 16. We should not take this opportunity away from those who are politically engaged and ready to vote. Everyone's societal and political journey is different and we should recognise this.
For argument's sake, if we were to discuss how well informed people are, I believe young people today are more informed than any other generation of teenagers. Our teenagers are highly educated and study a wide range of subjects. They are very capable of understanding the political system. I am sure many in the Chamber would agree that we, on the other hand, might not do so well in sitting a junior certificate paper if we were given one right now. We have to stop the constant undermining and belittling of our young people. They are educated. They are smart. We can hardly believe that they are capable of sitting exams in nine different subjects but they are somehow unable to get their head around the single transferable vote. I remind the House that civic, social and political education is one of these subjects and teenagers are actually taught about the electoral system in Ireland as well as their rights and responsibilities as citizens. As the National Youth Council of Ireland states, they should have the right not only to learn about political participation but to experience it through voting.
With the introduction of the leaving certificate politics and society subject, and with easy access to information on a wide range of issues and politics via the Internet, young people are very well informed and have the necessary tools to make well-informed decisions. I have often heard the argument that young people are easily swayed and I completely disagree with this assertion. We know young people are very Internet-savvy and are much more aware and conscious of misinformation than the older generation. Sadly, it is actually mostly the older generation that has been swept up in Internet misinformation in recent years. The argument that young people are the only ones prone to this is completely unfounded. Young people are far better equipped to recognise fake news, clickbait and misinformation on the Internet. As well as that, they are mature enough. It has been shown that there is not a considerable difference between an 18-year-old and a 16-year-old in terms of mental capacity for thought and development so there is no reason that an 18-year-old can vote but a 16-year-old cannot. Sixteen is the age at which young people gain many rights and responsibilities in society. For example, they can leave school, seek full-time employment, be liable for tax, learn to drive, consent to medical procedures, get a dog licence and join the youth sections of political parties.
They can have all these societal responsibilities but no say on how their society is run.
We have seen voting extended to 16- and 17-year-olds in other jurisdictions, including Austria, Scotland and Malta, with positive results. There is no reason why we should not follow suit. A number of EU countries also allow voting at 16 for European elections. The European Parliament has endorsed a report calling for the voting age for European elections to be set at 16. As well as this, the constitutional convention agreed that it was preferable to extend the right to vote to 16. Following those recommendations, the then Government committed to holding a referendum to reduce the voting age to 16. However, nothing came of it. In its report on the manner in which referendums are held and fixed-term parliaments, the citizens’ assembly voted 80% in favour of reducing the voting age in 2018.
It has been shown that the earlier young people engage in politics, the greater the chance that they will sustain a lifelong interest in and commitment to voting and participation in the democratic process. This has been proven in Scotland where, since the voting age was lowered, youth interest in politics has increased. We cannot expect young people to be fully interested in things they are not allowed to fully engage in. If we in this Chamber were truly interested in strengthening the democratic process and increasing political participation, then we could only be in favour of this legislation.
This legislation would have a considerably positive impact on rural constituencies such as my Donegal constituency. At 18, young people move away from home to college, training or work and they then fall through the administrative cracks. Lowering the voting age would significantly increase voter participation among the 18 to 25 age group. This legislation would then not only affect the 130,000 16- and 17-year-olds in this country, but the many 18- to 25-year-olds who have had to move away at 18 and are unlikely to properly settle into a constituency until their early to mid-20s. This affects a great many in my constituency who have no choice but to move away due to lack of opportunities and who often do not come back, or settle elsewhere, until much later.
Most importantly, I strongly believe young people should have a say on issues which will directly affect them and their future. Issues such as climate change need young voices. Only they can understand the urgency, as only they will have to live through its impact. I was inspired by the young people who came and spoke in the Seanad two weeks ago. It was brilliant to see young people speaking that passionately about climate change. The debate demonstrated just how important young voices are in shaping Ireland’s future.
I was also completely taken back by students from Loreto Letterkenny who came to speak about mica to politicians in Leinster House last week. I will take this opportunity to thank Ríoghnach, Eve, Adithi, Alice and Jennifer. The presentation they made was truly fantastic and they demonstrated that issues such as mica require young voices and young ideas. They are affected by that issue every bit as much as their parents and family members but they do not have a say in how it is resolved, because they are not allowed to vote. The right to vote should be extended to 16- and 17-year-olds in order that these voices are heard. Young people breathe life into tired issues and we desperately need their contribution to strengthen the politics and policies in this country, once and for all.
I am pleased to address the Dáil on the Thirty-ninth Amendment of the Constitution (Right to Vote at 16) Bill 2021, as brought forward by Deputy Pringle. This presents an opportunity to discuss the age at which persons should be entitled to vote in elections and referendums in Ireland.
This Bill proposes to amend Article 16 of the Constitution to lower the age at which persons would be entitled to vote in Dáil Éireann elections from 18 years of age to 16 years. This amendment to reduce the voting age in Dáil elections would have a consequential effect of reducing the voting age at presidential and local elections, as well as at referendums. The right to vote at these elections is linked, under the Constitution, to the right to vote at elections to Dáil Éireann. Deputies will be aware that currently in Ireland, one must be 18 years of age or over to vote at any election or referendum. These requirements are set out in the electoral codes and are underpinned by the Constitution.
Any Bill which proposes to amend the Constitution, as does the one before us today, must be passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas. When a constitutional amendment Bill has been passed by both Houses, it must be submitted by referendum to the decision of the people on whether to amend the Constitution in this regard. Such a referendum must be held between 30 and 90 days from the making by the Minister of a polling day order.
While the Bill is relatively short, reducing the voting age for an election is an issue of fundamental importance for any modern democracy. Enhancing active civil participation has become a topical issue in many countries around the world in recent years. It can be argued that this is in response to changing populations and demographics, improvements in educational attainment, greater access to information and increased political awareness more generally.
Proposals to lower the voting age have been made to support the motivation and inclusion of young people in the political decision-making processes that affect their rights and responsibilities. In part, this is reflective of a common desire to increase citizen engagement more generally, to broaden electoral representation and to strengthen political inclusion in support of basic democratic principles. However, calls to reduce the voting age are also being proposed as a means of addressing concerns on declining voter turnout and a perception of a growing disenchantment with politics that has arisen over recent years. It is a matter for debate as to whether reducing the voting age would address those concerns.
It is for reasons such as these that Programme for Government: Our Shared Future includes a number of commitments on electoral reform, including one to examine the voting age. These are the Government's immediate goals in terms of electoral reform and right now, I am prioritising the bringing forward a number of these programme-for-Government commitments by way of the Electoral Reform Bill 2022.
The Electoral Reform Bill 2022 was published in March and is currently progressing through the Oireachtas. It completed Report Stage in the Dáil last week and Second Stage in the Seanad on Tuesday of this week. The Bill sets out a wide-ranging modernisation of our electoral structures and processes and fulfils many of the electoral reform commitments described in Programme for Government: Our Shared Future. The extensive package of reforms set out in the Bill will address some of the most significant challenges which our electoral system faces today and it will create much-needed capacity within our system to anticipate and address new challenges into the future.
The Bill contains detailed provisions in respect of eight distinct areas. First, it establishes an Irish electoral commission; an independent body which will be directly accountable to the Houses of the Oireachtas. It will be positioned at the centre of our electoral system and will take on a range of existing and new electoral functions which will address emerging opportunities and challenges as our society and electoral environment evolve. The Bill will also modernise our electoral registration process. It will make registering to vote more accessible and streamlined and enable online registration, simplified forms and a continuously-updated, or rolling register, in order that people can update their details at any time.
In addition, the Bill provides for the regulation of online political advertising. The spread of online disinformation in the run up to electoral events is one of the most serious threats to our electoral system. In response to this threat, the Bill provides for greater transparency in respect of online political advertising during election periods. It will ensure transparency in political advertising and help protect our electoral processes from hidden interference. These provisions entail bringing the online electoral advertising space into line with our existing regulations around more traditional forms of advertising. The Bill includes measures to assist returning officers in running electoral events, should public health restrictions be in place due to pandemics such as we experienced with Covid-19.
It strengthens our regulatory regime in respect of political donations and accounts, including by giving the Standards in Public Office Commission new investigatory and enforcement powers. The Bill amends electoral law to provide for same-day island voting at all elections and referendums in Ireland. These amendments will ensure that polling at elections and referendums on the islands will take place on the same day as the rest of the country. Last, the Bill makes clear that political parties can run lotteries and draws as part of their fundraising activities. The Electoral Reform Bill 2022 represents a significant reform of our electoral legislation, processes and structures. It makes our system more accessible and more inclusive.
In addition to these reforms, Programme for Government: Our Shared Future, contains a number of further commitments relating to electoral reform. One such commitment, which is of relevance to this debate, is the commitment to examine the Scottish experience of reducing the voting age in order to draw conclusions. Once it is established, the electoral commission will be well placed to examine, among other matters, the prospect of reducing the age at which a person should be entitled to vote at elections and referendums held in the State, having particular regard to the experience in Scotland, as well as in other countries where a reduction in the voting age has taken place. The Private Member's Bill before us today can be considered alongside any recommendations that are made following such an examination. This approach will allow for a comprehensive consideration of the matter, which will robustly inform any proposals for change in this area.
A further issue which warrants consideration is that, as matters currently stand, there is consistency across all election and referendum codes in the State in terms of the voting age.
Currently, only persons aged 18 and over are entitled to vote in elections and referendums. This is in line with the age of majority in Ireland, which sets the age at which one becomes an adult in the eyes of the law. This Bill proposes to lower the voting age to 16 for Dáil elections, and by consequence at presidential and local elections as well as referendums. It does not, however, lower the voting age for European elections and university elections for the Seanad. Any proposal to lower the voting age would need to consider the inclusion of all elections and referendums in order to ensure consistency across the electoral code as to the voting age. It would be prudent to allow for the consideration of the voting age requirements in respect of all elections before bringing forward this Bill.
As a result of the foregoing and in particular the existing programme for Government commitment and extensive electoral reform programme that is under way, I and the Government are of the view that the Second Reading of this Bill should be deferred until the 30 June 2023. This will allow us the time to complete the current electoral reform commitments, including the establishment of the electoral commission, and, moreover, to undertake the examination of voting age in respect of the Scottish experience as set out in the programme for Government commitment. Such an examination will add considerable value to any proposals on this matter, allowing us the time to ensure consistency in our approach in terms of all electoral codes, and it will facilitate appropriate review and consultation among relevant parties.
On a personal level I agree with all the points raised by Deputy Pringle. I met representatives of the National Youth Council of Ireland and the Irish Second-Level Students Union. I welcome their representatives to the Gallery. The Deputy is correct that there has been significant animation of young people and not just through FridaysForFuture. It has always been there and young people have always been active in many spaces. We were active from a very young age and it is absolutely correct that we give due consideration to their right to vote and have a say.
Secondary to my portfolio I have set aside a specific young people and children's assembly relating to biodiversity because it is really important that young people's voices are heard in all our processes and not just in a tokenistic way. They should have a voice at the decision-making table. The debates in the Seanad Chamber were impassioned and young people made really vital contributions to the climate debate. After all, it is their future we are debating. The inclusion of the politics and society module in the leaving certificate has been really transformative for the level of debate in which young people engage at school level. I visited many schools, both virtually and in person, over the past couple of years to meet some of those students. They are doing really fantastic work.
There is so much going on but the approach we are taking is correct and measured. I have spoken about the legislative process of the electoral reform Bill and we will task the commission to do this work very early on once it is established. It is really important to me and it is important to the Government. I want to ensure the work takes place, is comprehensive and examines all other jurisdictions with experience. As the Deputy has said, it has been a largely positive experience in most jurisdictions where this measure has been introduced for certain, if not all, elections. In that regard it is important to look at the wider issues around participation in our democratic structures and system. We must consider why, particularly at local elections but also in general elections, voter turnout is still a challenge. It is a challenge across all western democracies, and this is a bigger issue that the commission will have a significant role in examining with respect to voter participation, education, awareness, the targeting of minorities and ensuring women have a more active role. That relates not just to participation in politics but aims to provide that the Dáil or council chambers right across the country can be more representative of the people living here. It is something we all want to improve.
I welcome this afternoon's debate and it is really important for us to have it. I thank Deputy Pringle for bringing forward the Bill but this is the correct approach. I give a commitment that we will task the commission to do this work early after its establishment.
I thank Deputy Pringle for bringing the Bill to the Chamber today and his staff for pulling it together for presentation to the Dáil. I am very disappointed as we were given the indication that the Government would accept the Bill but it seems we will now have to wait until 2023 for a Second Reading. Surely something like this could be looked at for the Electoral Reform Bill 2022, even at this late stage. Last week the Government could introduce a late amendment that had not been discussed on Committee Stage. It concerned parties being allowed to run lotteries because a question was raised about Fianna Fáil not being able to run a lottery. A citizen challenged the position because the party is not a non-governmental organisation and does not have charitable status. An important matter like this has been discussed with the National Youth Council of Ireland and secondary school students and it would have been positive to introduce the provision into the Electoral Reform Bill 2022.
I intended writing a contribution for this debate but I received a letter from a young person called Erica, so I will read it into the record on behalf of that young voice. It deals with many of the issues raised by Deputy Pringle. Erica states:
I am writing to you as your constituent to ask you to support the vote at 16 Bill which will be debated in the Dáil on Thursday, 23 June. As a young person I believe that I should be given the right to vote for the following reasons: 1. With the introduction of leaving cert politics and society and with easy access to information on a wide range of issues and politics via the Internet, young people are very well-informed and have the necessary tools to make well-informed decisions.
2. Young people today are highly educated and study a wide range of subjects. They are very capable of understanding the political system.
3. The earlier young people engage in politics, the greater the chance that they will sustain a lifelong interest and commitment to voting and participation in the democratic process.
4. At 18, young people move away from home to college, training or work and they then fall through the administrative cracks. Lowering the voting age would very likely increase voter participation among the 18-25 age group.
5. Young people are mature enough as it has been shown that there is not a considerable difference between an 18-year-old and a 16-year-old in terms of mental capacity for thought and development.
6. Sixteen is the age that young people gain many rights and responsibilities in society; for example, they can leave school, seek full-time employment, pay taxes and learn to drive.
7. The constitutional convention agreed that it was preferable to extend the right to vote to [those aged] 16.
8. The European Parliament has endorsed a report calling for the voting age for European elections to be set at 16. Austria and Scotland, as well as parts of Germany and Switzerland, have already lowered their voting age.
9. The citizens' assembly in 2018 voted 80% in favour of reducing the voting age.
10. Young people should have a say on issues which will directly affect their future such as climate change.
The final point is one of the biggest issues facing younger people in particular over the next 40 or 50 years. She concludes by stating:
As your constituent and a future voter, I would ask that you please respect the voices of young people and allow us a say on issues that affect us, our communities and our future. You can do this by supporting the vote at 16 Bill and by contributing to the debate on Thursday.
That is from Erica, who I am sure will be very disappointed to hear that the Bill will be delayed for a period when it could be dealt with much more quickly.
That is what I wanted to bring to the debate. I welcome the representatives of the National Youth Council of Ireland and other students to the Dáil and I hope they are not too disappointed. We will try to push on with this Bill over the next period so we can have the legislation in place for the 2025 Dáil elections, if we last that long.
I thank Deputy Pringle for bringing this Bill to the House. He may be disappointed at the Government's approach. I accept that. However, I think it is useful for him to have sparked off the conversation and to have prompted a Government response on this. The Deputy will not be surprised to hear that I am inclined to agree with the approach of the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan. We are doing a large job of work around the Electoral Reform Bill. There are already things written into that such as the pending electors list for getting 16- and 17-year-olds preregistered. I absolutely accept the Deputy's point - the same is true for Waterford as it is for Donegal - that very often people leave. In fact, my own vote stayed registered in Waterford throughout all the years I lived away from there. I think a lot of people who are from regional constituencies will have experienced that. Getting 16- and 17-year-olds involved in the process before they leave school can certainly be useful and can do no harm. What we all want is increased political participation and increased democracy.
As I understand it, and the Minister of State can correct me on this, he was saying that if we move this Bill through the Oireachtas and pass it, the timescale for initiating a referendum is 30 to 60 days, which is a very compressed timeframe for something that has deep and far-reaching implications. I suppose we could be accused of a word Deputy Ó Snodaigh uses in Irish; he talks about moilleadóireacht, that we are slowing down. Sometimes less haste is more speed. Getting the electoral commission to look at this issue in depth and come back with recommendations will serve us better in the long run than instigating a process that would have to be concluded within a compressed timeframe.
While I welcome the Bill and the discussion it has promoted, I would say to Deputy Pringle that he set up a number of straw men in his argument. If there is anybody making an argument about the mental capacity of young people or their critical thinking skills, I certainly did not hear it from the Minister of State and the Deputy will not hear it from me. When I was teaching, I ran an election with first class because the polling booths were in the school and, by Christ, they understood even at seven years of age the power of the single transferable vote and how that would split between different people. Young people, many of whom are in the Gallery, are politically engaged. Many of them are politically active. The climate activism and direct action we have seen from youth voices in terms of climate strikes and FridaysForFuture have had a real impact here within the Houses of the Oireachtas. They were invited in to speak in the Seanad just recently. I am all for the participation of youth voices. This is pre-empting the work of the electoral commission but I personally would be in favour of reducing the voting age to 16. However, let us do the work first.
I was reading Deputy Pringle's contribution in an article on thejournal.ie. Whereas we are not talking about people's critical thinking skills in any sort of negative way, I did notice the Deputy asked:
How many people in their 50s and 60s take it seriously? How many older people who just go in and tick a box because that’s all they've ever done?
Those are not the people I am meeting on the doors in Waterford; that is for sure. The people I am meeting in Waterford are taking their vote seriously. The franchise is an important thing. People died in order that we could exercise it. I think that we have to give it all due consideration.
There are many provisions in the Electoral Reform Bill that are excellent, including the pending electors list. They are about expanding the franchise, making it available to more people, and making sure people do not feel they are excluded from voting because it might impact on their personal safety, for example if they are victims of domestic abuse. A lot of the things in that Bill have been very carefully considered. It is right and proper within our democracy that we give careful consideration to what is most fundamental about a democracy, which is the ability to participate and to vote. While I very much welcome the debate Deputy Pringle has brought forward, I agree with the Minister of State about the correct place for this to happen to make sure everything we provide for within legislation is given due care and consideration. The Constitution, as we know, is a difficult document to change and needs careful consideration before changes are made to it.
On allowing a year's timeframe for a timed amendment, I think the Deputy said we would miss the next electoral cycle. Well, who knows? The next local elections are due to take place in 2024. If we expedite the work, and I would be hoping that the electoral commission might pre-empt the Second Reading of the Bill, there is every chance we might be able to put this in place in time for the next electoral cycle. I think people within the Green Party would welcome that. Personally I would welcome the expansion of the voting age to 16. However, less haste, more speed; if we are to make this change let us consider it properly and do it properly so that we have it right in the long run.
I am very happy to speak on Second Stage of this Bill about the future of our land and the people who create the politics in it. I commend Deputy Pringle on giving us an opportunity to speak on it this evening. I did not read his piece on thejournal.ieso I will not be able to give him any notes - good, bad or indifferent. As far as Sinn Féin is concerned, our young people should have the vote at 16. There really is not a moment to waste. Attempts to push it back a year are misguided and outdated.
A few weeks ago at the climate committee, young people from all across the State came and really knocked our socks off. It was not only in their heads but in their hearts as well. They knew exactly what needed to be done and it was striking how deeply they felt it. On climate change, biodiversity and the need to live sustainably, they really got it. They knew exactly the radical change that needs to come. We had a great debate. I know people in the Green Party do not like me talking about it but the real inconvenient truth is our economic model. That is the biggest thing we have to face around climate change. We had a great debate about capitalism, billionaires and people gathering money when it really is just a unit of energy that we exchange for something else. It is really not right that the number of billionaires has increased so much. Energy is not something that should be kept or stored like that. It should move around our communities. I really worry about climate change in that regard. Those young people really got it.
If we are really interested in the future and our future generations, they should be allowed their vote and their voice. They could bring about the political change that is really necessary for our species to survive. Our planet will be all right; it is our species we should be worried about. We are kidding ourselves in here if we believe that the kind of politics that have got us where we are today over the last 100 years is going to see us through the next 100 years. I really do not believe it will. Young people know this instinctively and it is time to give them the vote at the age of 16. If we do not, we are holding them back at a critical juncture in their lives and for our species as well.
There are young people in my constituency of Kildare North who are adamant that they should have the vote at 16, and why not? Is the Government too afraid of their courage and idealism? Our Republic was declared in the main part by young, idealistic visionaries and I believe young people would have a great job to do in fashioning and shaping that promised Republic which we are still really waiting for. Why can there not be the change that is hoped for and looked for in housing, health, climate and education? Our young people would be able to tell us very much exactly what we should do. I am in awe of the young people I meet and who contact me across the island and in my constituency about the world they want to create.
I took part in a debate just before the general election in Maynooth Post Primary School. Young people were there and the chat was very good; they were very knowledgeable. There is also a particular group of boys in Naas CBS who get in touch with me around various small issues such as democracy and how it functions. They were talking to me as well about putting solar panels on the top of school buildings and how they could be used in the community as well. It is a complete no-brainer to empower them and let them have their say in campaigns and at the ballot box. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is anti-democratic to deny our young people the vote at 16 and tell them we are not ready for them when they are ready for us. One would have to wonder about what message that sends. It infantilises our young people and delays their full engagement in the democratic process.
I believe that 16-year-olds would appreciate that vote. They would be still in school. They could engage and discuss this in their civics class, or whatever they call that now in school. It was civics when I went to school. Many teachers as well do votes and explain our democratic process to students and it is very interesting for them. They should have a right to vote.
The younger you are when you first vote, the more likely you are to vote at every general election after that. I recall my father running me out the door when I was 18 to get me on the electoral register. He was trying to get me to vote for Fianna Fáil, my mother was trying to get me to vote for the Labour Party and I went off and did something else. We should open the door wide to votes at 16 and let them into our politics.
This has been a very interesting discussion. I thank Deputy Pringle for bringing this Bill forward. This reflects the Labour Party’s position on the question of extending the franchise. This is very important. This is about the evolution of the democratic process. It was not very long ago when women were denied the vote. We heard some of the same kinds of tropes that are used to deny younger people in western democracies the right to vote. Nobody in here is using those tropes, thankfully. I did not hear that the Minister is opposed to the idea of extending the franchise to younger voters.
Democracy in this Republic is a work in progress. Who are we to say that we should deny the natural evolution and natural extension of the franchise to those aged 16 and 17? In fact, there is a very compelling argument as to why we should. Even anecdotally from my own experience, as somebody who has been actively engaged in politics and political activism from a very young age, I can detect and determine much more engagement now from younger people regarding their civic responsibilities, their understanding of how our democracy does or sometimes does not work and discussions around alternatives to how we do things now.
One of the best and most enlightening engagements I have had in recent weeks was a conversation with fifth year students in my alma mater, St. Joseph’s CBS in Drogheda. I want to acknowledge, as Deputy Collins did, some engagement she has had with constituents who may be 16 or 17 at this point, or even younger, and who are involved in the ISSU. In the engagement I had, for example, at St. Joseph’s CBS we heard from local activists such as Andrew Victory who has been in touch with me by email this week. He is one of the Louth-Meath regional officers for the ISSU. I want to pay tribute to Eva Grace as well for the contact she had with me ahead of this. That engagement that I had in my former school just a few weeks ago was very enlightening, as was the more recent engagement I had with fifth year politics students in Drogheda Grammar School. What those students said to me, and the way in which they approached the arguments they were making about many important social, economic and cultural issues, convinced me even more that the young people of 2022 have much more agency, knowledge about the process and the system and much more intellectual clarity about how the world works and how it and our political system might work better.
The experience in other countries where the vote has been extended to 16- and 17-year-olds has been quite telling. In Austria, Norway and Scotland, as was said earlier, people can vote from 16 in certain elections. Why not let Irish citizens do the same? These are the kinds of countries that we like to compare ourselves against from a range of perspectives. Evidence shows that since the introduction of votes for 16-year-olds in Scotland, political engagement has increased and deepened. Likewise, in Austria, research conducted on voting behaviour of young voters aged 16 to 18 revealed that young people are interested in politics. We can often dismiss young people as not having an interest in politics. That has not been my experience at all; it is quite the opposite. While we used to perhaps say a few years ago that perhaps young people are not interested in politics or political parties and are more interest in direct action or single issues, I see now much more focus on getting involved in the collective, a political party, a trade union or a local climate action group, for example.
The idea that taxation and representation need to be linked is an American truism in many ways. If the Minister of State recalls - I think it was mentioned earlier on - you can work at 16 and 17 and pay income tax, but you have no right to engage in an election that might determine how your tax might be spent and engage in political debate on the competing political philosophies of how your money might be spent and where resources might be best directed in this society and economy.
There is also an issue that I am extremely concerned about, which I am on record about for quite some time regarding how we need to see change. Young people can work at 16 and 17 but we still have the extraordinary situation where the adult rate of the national minimum wage does not apply to somebody them. They work and they pay perhaps a small amount of tax, depending on where the thresholds lie and so on, but they are paid less than the adult who might be working in the same shop, restaurant, office or factory. They are doing an equivalent job. Part of me feels that one of the reasons that is the case is those who are 16 and 17 cannot vote and, therefore, their voice is minimised and diminished. This is an issue we need to address in the application of minimum wage law to 16- and 17-year-old workers. I hope that is something that we can do over the next period.
In conclusion, fundamentally this is about the evolution of our democracy and this Republic, which is unfinished business. Democracies always evolve and the franchise is always under review. There is a very strong, compelling argument to extend the vote to 16- and 17-year-olds. From what I heard from the Minister, there is not an outright denial that this will happen, but, rather, he requires some more time to consider this. He wants the electoral commission to review this and to proceed with a degree of caution, but accepting in principle that this something that will happen. I think it is inevitable. The sooner it happens, the better. We will all be better off as a society when we extend the franchise to 16- and 17-year-olds.
I thank everyone who contributed. I do not want the young people either in the Public Gallery or watching online to be despondent from this debate; quite the opposite. As Deputy Nash said, this will progress in a positive way.
On timing, I will task the commission to look at this piece of work very early on so that we can prepare for our next electoral event, which will be the 2024 local and European elections and can make an informed decision on it. It is very important that we collate all the research. In thejournal.iearticle this morning, Deputy Pringle may have suggested that perhaps the bigger parties might be disadvantaged by reducing the voting age. That is not always the case.
Reducing the voting age will transform party manifestoes and the candidates they put forward, and transform the level and types of debate that take place in the Dáil and Seanad Chambers and in council chambers, because it will be much more geared towards young people. I have no doubt it is only going to be a positive thing. I am absolutely supportive personally of reducing the voting age but it is critical that we make an informed decision on it. That is why the Government is of the view that the commission is the best place to do that.
I am somewhat disappointed there were not more contributions from Members and I would have expected that more Members would have contributed. However, we have had a good debate. Again, I acknowledge the letter from Erica which Deputy Joan Collins read out. I am giving a commitment that we will be tasking the commission to look at this very early on after its establishment and it is something we want to see happen. That deals with the contributions from Members.
I acknowledge that FridaysForFuture has been involved with Comhairle na nÓg for many years. I thank the National Youth Council of Ireland and the Irish Second-Level Students Union for their ongoing engagement on this issue, which is important. We see young people being so active in this space. It is encouraging and inspiring to see young people participating in our democratic structures, both at Comhairle na nÓg level and in local decision-making, and they are making a huge impact, as we saw with the reduction in the public transport fares, which was led by Comhairle na nÓg. They are having a huge impact in their involvement with us in the Legislature and I thank them for that.
The debate has presented a useful opportunity to discuss the age at which persons would be entitled to vote in elections and referendums in Ireland and provided much to consider as we move forward on this issue. As Deputies are aware, this Bill proposes to amend the Constitution in order to lower the age at which persons would be entitled to vote in Dáil Éireann elections from 18 years of age to 16 years. This amendment to reduce the voting age in Dáil elections would also have a consequential effect of reducing the voting age at presidential and local elections, as well as at referendums. The right to vote at these elections is linked, under the Constitution, to the right to vote at elections to Dáil Éireann. An amendment to the Constitution is not something to be taken lightly. It is a fundamental change to the legal framework of our State. Any Bill which proposes to amend the Constitution, such as this one, must be passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas and a referendum must be held.
In my contribution earlier, I outlined three significant reasons as to why the Government is seeking the Second Reading of this Bill to be deferred until 30 June 2023. In summary, these reasons are as follows. First, there is currently an extensive electoral reform programme, which implements key electoral reform priorities set out in the programme for Government, including the establishment of an electoral commission, being brought forward by way of the Electoral Reform Bill 2022. This Bill completed Report Stage in the Dáil last week and Second Stage in the Seanad on Tuesday. Second, there is an existing commitment in the programme for Government to examine the Scottish experience of reducing the voting age in order to draw conclusions. Once it is established, the commission will be well placed to undertake such an examination. Finally, it is important to ensure consistency across all electoral codes. This Bill only lowers the voting age to 16 at Dáil elections and consequentially at presidential and local elections, as well as referendums, but it does not lower the voting age for European and university elections for the Seanad. Any proposal to lower the voting age should include all elections and referendums.
As we are aware, there is much to consider in progressing the proposal to lower the voting age. Learning from other countries should be considered. Experience elsewhere has shown that it is not enough to reduce the voting age and expect that positive benefits will flow. To have the desired effect of promoting participation and democratic engagement, legislative change must be supported through education. That is the message coming from experience in Austria and more recently with the referendum in Scotland.
It is also worth noting that voting at age 16 is not the norm around the world. Currently, only two EU countries - Austria and Malta - and five Central and South American countries - Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador and Nicaragua - provide for voting at age 16 in national elections, although Norway, Switzerland and Germany do provide for voting at age 16 in some sub-national elections. We are also aware that Scotland, the Welsh National Assembly, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands have reduced the voting age for certain elections in recent times. The impact of these reforms merits further examination to see what lessons can be learned and may be hugely informative to any proposals going forward.
I again thank all Deputies for their contributions.
I thank Deputies Joan Collins, Cronin, Nash and Ó Cathasaigh, and the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, for their contributions to the debate. Bizarrely, everybody seems to be in favour of it but the Bill is not progressing, so that is how this House works. I have some measure of understanding of the Minister of State’s wish to delay this to 2023, although I will not say that is fair enough. One would imagine from what the Minister of State was saying that if this passed tonight, we would have a referendum in a couple of weeks time and everything would be done and dusted. The reality is that if this Bill passed here today, it would have to go to pre-legislative scrutiny in committee anyway, and that debate and discussion that the Minister of State said is essential could be had in the committee of the Oireachtas, rather than it being at an electoral commission and then being presented to us. We could actually have the debate and the discussion in the committee of this House, where we could tease out all of these issues and talk about it. That would take a process of a number of months to work through, if it happened, and it would then have to go through Committee Stage before coming back to the Dáil for Report Stage, and it would then have to go through the Seanad. There would be a lot of consideration and a lot of discussion in regard to the Bill if that were to happen, but that is not the way it is going.
In researching for this debate, I found out that in 2015 the Government at the time committed to holding a referendum to reduce the voting age to 16, as did the first report of the Convention on the Constitution in 2013, although, of course, that did not happen. The same Government allowed a similar Bill to today’s Bill to die on Committee Stage, so it did not happen on that occasion either. I am not saying that is going to happen with this Bill and I will be working to make sure it does not happen. I take the Minister of State at his word that it is not going to happen to this Bill, but time will tell.
It was interesting in researching for this Bill to find there was a lot of similar discussion in 1973, when the voting age was reduced from 21 to 18, and that this had been the policy of the parties since the 1960s. In the debate that took place at that time in the House, all the parties were clamouring to say it was their idea, so there was no real discussion in regard to it. It was a Fianna Fáil Government that put forward the referendum and Fine Gael and Labour were also saying they had put this forward in the 1960s. It is obviously how things work and how the process goes along.
There was talk about tokenism. To a certain extent, having young people in the Seanad was very good, positive and strong, but it is also a bit tokenistic when we say they can be in the Seanad but we are not going to allow them to vote yet. As always, I am qualifying everything I am saying with the fact the Minister of State is saying this Bill will be read a Second Time in 12 months time, in June 2023. Hopefully, that will be the case and I will work towards making sure it is the case and will progress to Committee Stage. There will be a long process before Committee Stage takes place, with hearings and everything else, which is important. However, for the National Youth Council and young people, the message they will take from this debate today is that it has been delayed to next year, which basically adds a couple of years to it, if it goes ahead. Even if the electoral commission decides to do it and recommends it over the next year, and we will see how that develops, it will still be a number of years before it is processed. It will still have to come back to this House, go through this House and go through the Seanad, having gone through pre-legislative scrutiny in the committee. It will still be a long-drawn-out process with plenty of opportunity for debate and discussion.
The Minister of State raised three points on the barriers to this Bill going through.
Two of them I take on board. The third one does not make sense. The Minister of State argued that a consequence would be that the reduced voting age would apply in respect of local elections and referenda but not European elections and some other elections. That is not really an issue. Legislation will have to be drafted and passed. On foot of a constitutional referendum, legislation would be required to amend the Electoral Acts. Surely that issue could be addressed in that. I do not believe it is really an issue.
This debate has been very worthwhile. We will work towards June 2023 to make sure this legislation proceeds at that stage. I will actively follow the work of the electoral commission and how it deals with this matter between now and then.