Ensuring more youthful participation in democracy

The turnout of young people more than ever before in the recent general elections challenged the vexed stereotype that our young people are “lazy Nigerian youths” with no mind of their own. Sadly, when it comes to deciding their future, it is generally left in the hands of older people. It is high time this changed. We need to bring in more young people to vote. The legal voting age in Nicaragua, Scotland, Isle of Man, Guernsey, Ethiopia, Ecuador, Cuba, Brazil, and Austria is 16 years. It’s time Nigeria embraced it.

Naysayers often interrogate the competence of those aged 16 years to vote based on informed choices. They believe teenagers lack the ability and motivation to participate effectively in elections. Other arguments are that they are impulsive and immature and that their brains are not well developed to make such important decisions.

I beg to disagree. In looking at the intellectual capacity of 16-yeAar-olds, it’s imperative to consider what is referred to as “cold” and “hot” cognition. Laurence Steinberg, a professor of psychology at Temple University and the author of “Age of opportunity: Lessons from the new science of adolescence,” defined “cold cognitive abilities are those we use when we are in a calm situation when we are by ourselves and have time to deliberate and when the most important skill is the ability to reason logically with facts.” Voting is a perfect example of this kind of situation.

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Several studies on cold cognition have shown that by age 16 years the skills necessary to make informed decisions are well-established. By that age, adolescents can bring information together and process them, weigh the pros and cons, reason logically with facts, and take time before making a decision. No doubt, teenagers may sometimes make bad choices, but based on scientific data, theirs is no more than it happens in adults.

Generally, there has been voter apathy among the electorate in Nigeria and this is seen more among older voters who may feel they have been disappointed enough. Contrariwise, young people seem to have brought in new colour, new dimension, and new optimism to the Nigerian political firmament.

Involving more young people is likely to have far-reaching effects. Young people under 18 are most probably in school and live with their families. This means enthusiastic young people are more inclined to influence their parents who may be hesitant to perform their civic responsibility. Younger persons who are politically savvy are more likely to interrogate their leaders and demand accountability than the older people who cautiously run towards the pension-finishing line.

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Some critics might still argue that “under-18s” are not able or motivated to participate effectively in politics and their electoral choices are of lower quality. Wagner et al, in their research in Austria where a 16-year-old can vote, tested whether these criticisms have an empirical basis. They found that “under-18,” are not particularly unable or unwilling to participate effectively in politics. And importantly, they did not find that “the vote choices of citizens under 18 reflect their preferences less well than those of older voters do.” In essence, reducing the voting age does not seem to hurt input legitimacy and the quality of democratic decisions.

As a family physician who attends to adolescents, I appreciate their growth stages and their mindset. Young people at a certain stage in their lives need to be given more room to explore and be involved in the things that ultimately affect them. They should have a say in the democratic process and how it affects their future. And it can start by legitimising young people to start voting from 16.

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  • Dr Cosmas Odoemena, a medical doctor, writes from Lagos

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