Typical 16 and 17-year-olds enjoy sleeping in on Sundays. But on May 22, those in the German city-state of Bremen will have a reason to greet the day a bit earlier. For the first time in their nation’s history, they will be allowed to cast ballots in state elections after the local government decided to lower the voting age to 16 from the nationwide standard of 18.
Politicians in the northern port city have made great efforts to reach the young new voting bloc, with candidates spending an entire morning speaking with students at the city parliament and taking time to visit most of the area’s schools. Local sports stars have also tried sparking interest among teens. Sebastian Prödl, a player for football club SV Werder Bremen, even made a bet with a number of school classes that their under-20 demographic couldn’t beat voter turnout among 21- to 35-year-olds. If they prove him wrong, he’ll teach an hour-long lesson for each class.
While the idea remains unpopular among Chancellor Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats (CDU), the zeitgeist seems to be turning against them as opposition parties continue gaining ground during the “super election year” of 2011, during which there will be a total of seven state polls. Advocates say that more youthful voters counteract voter apathy and the country’s growing number of pensioners. They also say that bringing adolescents to politics at a younger age helps mould them into more responsible, civic-minded adults.
But opponents worry that the teens aren’t mature enough to make a meaningful contribution to the country’s political landscape. According to a study conducted by the University of Hohenheim, 16-and 17-year-olds possess “significantly more limited political knowledge” than legal adults — regardless of their level of education. Others argue it is illogical to separate voting rights from those of legal adulthood. Why should adolescents be allowed to vote at 16 when they still have to wait two more years to drive a car or sign their own mobile phone contract, they ask.