Image is illustrative. Asad Photo Maldives (Pexels)

Elections and referendums are one of the most powerful avenues for citizens or members of organisations to participate in decision-making and governance of their organisation, local community, region, country or even continent. All EU member states are representative democracies which means that citizens elect their representatives to exercise power on their behalf. In almost all cases, elections happen at a set interval – for example, every 2, 3, 4 or 5 years. There are two ways of participating in elections: voting for (electing) your representative or running as a candidate.

Referendums are public (general) votes to change the constitution or to decide on an important political national issue that has been referred to the electorate for a decision.

Whereas all young people, regardless of their age, should have full human rights by international human rights conventions, in reality they cannot exercise their voting rights until reaching a certain age. The most common voting age for across the European continent is 18, however there are a number of countries who have recently lowered the voting age to 16 or 17. A number of countries are debating to follow suit.

Elections are relevant to young people because…

  • A significant part of the youth population can vote

  • Those young people who have not yet reached the voting age will soon be old enough to vote – they will benefit from formal, non-formal and informal learning opportunities that empowers them to understand the political processes

  • Regardless of whether a young person has the right to vote or not, elections and the consequent political processes have a direct impact on young people as well. It is therefore important to be informed about what is going on. There are also other ways to influence the political processes – e.g. through projects like “Youth Shadow Elections”, peaceful demonstrations, social media campaigns or petitions

  • Voting ages are not set in stone. They have been changed in the past and can be changed again in the future to reflect the changes in society and to make elections more inclusive

  • Even if some young people are not yet old enough to vote or run as a candidate in political elections, they can still exercise their right to vote in other contexts: elections for school student council, student unions, youth organisations, youth councils and parliaments etc. where the age limit for voting or running as a candidate is usually lower than 18


Martti Martinson
Martti Martinson

Martti Martinson is an Honorary Fellow at Victoria University, Australia and his research and advocacy work is focused on the enabling environment for youth participation in decision-making processes. He is a strong advocate for the concept of human rights based youth work and legislating youth participation.