Editor’s Note: Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based writer focusing on renewable energy in Europe. He is the author of five books on European issues, most recently “Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin.” The opinions in this article are those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.
When Greek citizens go to the polls on Sunday to elect a new parliament, an entirely new voting segment will weigh in. This year is the first that those between the ages of 17 and 21 will get a chance to vote in national elections, putting an estimated 430,000 more people on the rolls and in the thick of Greek politics.
Some could even be as young as 16 – provided they are turning 17 this election year.
Their ballots could tip the scales, depending on the overall turnout. But whether they are decisive or not, Greece, the birthplace of democracy, is the latest country to offer the youngest of Generation Z a voice – thereby giving representative democracy a welcome boost in an age when cynicism and complacency is sapping even longstanding democratic cultures.
It’s not the first time this year Greece’s youngest voters have made their voices heard. In the country’s earlier May 21 election – which failed to confirm an absolute majority and is therefore being repeated this week – young people turned out in high numbers, say observers, signaling their legitimate interest in political representation at the country’s highest level.
At the time, many 17- to 24-year-olds, like their elders, voted for the conservative New Democracy Party of Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. But they voted for it in smaller numbers than their parents and nearly as enthusiastically for the left-wing Syriza party, which came in second.
Little wonder then, and a welcome novelty, that all of the Greek political parties are addressing young voters more directly than ever before. Across TikTok, YouTube and Facebook, parties are reaching out to Gen Zers with perks – including the prospect of a Youth Pass, which would give everyone turning 18 €150 ($164) to spend on culture, tourism or transport.
This exciting phenomenon of opening up voting to people under the age of 18 isn’t just happening in Greece. The campaign is catching fire in Europe – and building momentum in the US, too.
How other countries do it
Currently, in the European Union, Austria and Malta are the only countries in which 16-year-olds can cast a ballot in all elections – from the local to the EU level. In Germany, this age group can vote in European elections, and the same goes for Belgium, on request. In Estonia, 16-year-olds can vote in local elections. And, when Scotland held its referendum on Scottish independence back in 2014, it lowered the voting age from 18 to 16.
In the US, some cities in the states of Maryland and California have lowered the voting age to 16 in certain local elections. And in more than 15 states, 17-year-olds may vote in primaries to nominate candidates for president, Congress, and governor.
This year, Rep. Grace Meng (New York) reintroduced legislation to replace the 26th Amendment of the US Constitution – where voting rights are inscribed – with a new amendment that would lower the voting age to 16.
The solid arguments of Meng and US voting rights groups are remarkably similar to those of European NGOs pushing for the same changes across the EU. Since older teenagers are legally permitted to work, drive vehicles and pay federal income taxes, they should be able to have a say on those issues and others.
Indeed, the inclusion of ever more younger people in the political process could be just the thing to rejuvenate democracy and shift the sights of politicos to new topics.
The European Youth Forum, a platform of over a hundred youth organizations in Europe that endorses voting at 16, wants a voice on youth rights, standards for internships, taxation, educational opportunities abroad, sustainability and digitalization. The US-based NGO National Youth Rights Association argues that 16- and 17-year-olds should participate on decision making on medical autonomy, curfew, drinking age and age discrimination.
“Decisions on the transformation in our transportation system, the end of fossil fuels and the urgent clean energy transition can’t be made without us,” Linda Kastrup of the climate movement group Fridays for Future told me. “The future of our country should be determined by all the people who will be living in it.”
Studies show that this segment of the population is every bit as capable of understanding the issues at stake as older people. And, as the human beings who will live the longest on this earth, they have a disproportionate interest in determining its conditions.
Evidence from Europe underscores that extending voting rights to young people promotes higher turnout for first-time voters – and that they also then participate more regularly in the future, too.
“When the government makes decisions about education, the environment and war and peace, young people are affected for more years of their lives than any other age demographic,” argues Neil Bhateja of the National Youth Rights Association, an advocacy group.
“They work and are subject to taxation without representation: income tax, sales tax, payroll taxes and more… The US should continue its democratic tradition of extending voting rights,” he added.
Like the oceans, they rise
No recent event speaks more loudly for the right of young people to participate in our political decision-making processes than the climate school strikes held around the world since 2019.
The grave concerns of millions of school-age kids in 125 countries was on display when they joined the Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg in skipping school on Fridays and taking to the streets to demonstrate against climate inaction – on behalf of their generation. These young people consciously broke the rules, committing a bold act of civil disobedience, for the reason that they felt their voices and interests were going unheard in the halls of power.
The sea of determined young faces in Berlin and London, Bogota and Nairobi, illustrated their deep-seated concern that decisions impacting the planet’s health – and thus their futures – were being made by people with less to lose than themselves.
Increasing extreme weather events stand to impact the decades ahead, when they’ll have their own families, in an ever more profound way.
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In Berlin, on the eve of the 2019 European Parliament elections, young activists, addressing demonstrators from a podium at Brandenburg Gate, beseeched their elders to “vote for on our behalf because we can’t vote.” Elsewhere around the world at school strikes, posters and signs read: “Our future is on your shoulders,” “The oceans are rising and so are we,” “Vote for climate” and “We are voting now!”
The sophistication of the global climate movement and its demands is the most convincing evidence that these young people are capable of making intelligent, considered choices. Let’s open this political space to them, just as the right to cast ballots has been opened to so many diverse groups since its inception in ancient Greece thousands of years ago.