What if the voting age was lowered to 16? Looking at a decade of evidence from Austria


The idea of lowering the voting age, mostly to 16, is being discussed in several countries. But, how do 16- and 17-year-olds compare to older (first-time) voters? In a new book chapter, Julian Aichholzer and Sylvia Kritzinger answer this question by looking at a decade of empirical evidence from Austria, where voting at 16 was introduced at the national level already in 2007. Overall, they find that the evidence is encouraging to supporters of a voting age reform. Their findings thus have implications for policy-makers and contribute to an evidence-based debate over youth political engagement and electoral turnout.

­By Julian Aichholzer and Sylvia Kritzinger


Lowering the voting age?

Policy-makers and researchers alike have long been concerned with young citizens' engagement in politics and potential ways to foster greater political engagement and participation of this age cohort. Political pundits have put forward the idea of lowering the voting age to counter decreasing levels of electoral turnout especially among young voters. In theory, this measure could encourage involvement in politics at an earlier stage of life while still being embedded in family and school surroundings, thus potentially boosting long-term involvement and participation. Currently, the idea of lowering the voting age is being discussed in several countries (e.g., initiatives in the U.S. or in the U.K.), whereas Malta, for example, just introduced a voting age reform in 2018.

In a new book chapter we assess the impact of this policy proposal in Austria, where the general voting age was lowered from 18 to 16 more than a decade ago, in 2007. For this purpose, we rely on records from electoral lists as well as large-sample survey data by the 2013 and 2017 Austrian National Election Study (AUTNES) to compare 16- and 17-year-olds to older voter cohorts. Our aim was to comprehensively assess the policy's impact from a medium-term perspective by also taking into account potential contextual factors between elections.

What we find

First, looking at official records from five elections (local, regional, and national), we find that adolescent voters (16- to 17-year-olds) show relatively high turnout rates, on average. The gap in the level of turnout between the group of adolescents and older first-time voters (18-20 years) ranges between +2.3% and +10.0%, meaning that adolescents are more likely to turn out to vote. In other words, turnout initially seems to decrease from age 18 onwards when young people "leave the nest". In turn, 16- and 17-year-olds even approach the turnout level of the total electorate. These findings generally corroborate earlier evidence reported by Zeglovits and Aichholzer.

Second, our analysis of survey data in 2013 suggests that political interest in politics per se seems to be somewhat lower among the youngest voters. However, over time young voters became more interested in politics and electoral campaigns, then showing similar results as the population average in 2017. Also, with regard to internal efficacy (i.e., feeling able to take an active role in politics), all first-time voters exhibit similar values as older voters. Perhaps surprisingly, adolescent voters start their political career with a more optimistic picture of how politics works. The youngest group (16-17 years) even exhibits the highest level of external efficacy (i.e., faith and trust in the government to be responsive). Overall, first-time voters (aged 16-20) are also quite satisfied with the way democracy works, as do much older cohorts (70+ years old; see Figure 1).

In general, we also corroborate that party attachment (i.e., feeling close to a specific party) is higher among the older voter cohorts, although all first-time voters become more similar over time. Yet, at least in 2017 the 16-17-old voters seemed to have a below average probability to vote "correctly", i.e., they are less likely to vote for a party that is closest in ideological terms.


Our study on the Austrian case provides a comprehensive and medium-term assessment of political involvement among adolescent voters aged 16-17. We show that the level of turnout is generally higher among 16- to 17-year-olds (compared to 18- to 20-year-olds) and similar to the electorate's average (and here in particular amongst the 16-year-olds), as evidenced by official records from electoral lists. Results on "political maturity" are more mixed but still very positive, particularly when observed from a medium-term perspective. Most importantly, in most instances, we find that the youngest group does not differ significantly from older first-time voters (18-20), and in some instances they even outperform them.

Initially, the picture in 2013 suggested a somewhat more pessimistic picture of adolescent voters. However, with the two groups becoming more alike in the subsequent election, the picture turned positive again in 2017. Do our results thus already indicate "voting at 16" to be the "new normal" after the 2007 voting age reform? Or, is this the effect of a contested election? It is safe to say that the 2017 elections showed a greater level of politicization and high saliency that might have strongly mobilized all voters, younger and older ones, resulting also in an increase in overall turnout. Overall, our results reveal that the criticism that accompanied the lowering of the voting age to 16 did not become manifest. Rather, they show that adolescents play an active part in political life.


We would like to close this blog by trying to summarize the processes why Austria lowered the voting age in the first place. In Austria, the electoral reform which led to voting at 16 was clearly a top-down process initiated by parties. In particular, the idea was strongly promoted by the left-wing parties, the governing Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) as well as The Greens (in opposition). Observers of the reform considered it to be the result of an exchange deal where the SPÖ agreed to introduce absentee voting (Briefwahl), which was proposed by its coalition partner ÖVP, in order to decrease the voting age. Eventually, a general voting age of 16 was implemented in 2007 as part of a more extensive electoral reform including other novel measures. Thus, also in other countries the lowering of the voting age might be more viable within the realm of more general electoral reforms. It is also worth mentioning that the voting age reform in Austria was accompanied by several measures for the youngest voters, such as awareness-raising campaigns. Moreover, civic and citizenship education was implemented as a mandatory cross-curricular educational principle, which now follows a competence-based system. This is important since other scholarly work suggests that having participated in civic and political education plays an important role in preparing young people and, thus, for active participation in one's political life. We thus advise policy-makers to complement a lowering of the voting age with different measures in school education to ensure positive long-term effects.


This blog post has also appeared in the Democratic Audit blog.



Julian Aichholzer is a Post-Doc researcher at the Department of Government at the University of Vienna and is affiliated with the Austrian National Election Study (AUTNES). His research interests include political attitudes and voting behavior, political psychology, and survey research.

Sylvia Kritzinger is Professor of Methods in the Social Sciences at the Department of Government at the University of Vienna. She is deputy director of the Vienna Center for Electoral Research (VieCER) and one of the project leaders of the Austrian National Election Study (AUTNES). Her research focuses on political behavior, electoral research, democratic representation, political participation and quantitative methods.



Figure 1: Satisfaction with democracy by age group