The gesture. At the European elections, we will ‘give’ the vote to our youngest children. They must be able to decide

By Lucia Marchegiani and Matteo Rizzolli, original article in Italian on avvenire.it

Italy will not allow 16-year-olds to vote, other countries will. The provocation of a couple of researchers: excluding children means discriminating against them. They pay for adults’ choices, they have no voice

Leonardo is 16 years old. He attends a political youth organisation. He speaks little at home, but when he agrees to engage in conversations outside of football, the topics range from the war in Gaza to the vicissitudes of political parties, from the merits and limits of environmentalism to the role of social media in the education of young people. Geneva is 13 years old and says she is not interested in politics but already has clear ideas about schools, international experiences, same-sex couples, and the space denied to young people and children in big cities. Both observe an old and ailing country; Ginevra already sees herself projected out of here at least for a while, while Leonardo wants to stay, ‘because it is cowardly to leave’.

Leonardo and Ginevra are Italian citizens, who are minors and will ‘vote’ for the first time in the European elections this year, although Italian law forbids it. Leonardo and Ginevra are our children and we, their parents, will give them our right to vote. We will be accompanied to the polling station and we will vote according to their instructions. It’s just a pity that they will not be able to enter the booth with us, as normally happens in other countries.

Why will we do this? Because this is a country that ignores the voices, the wishes, and the political interests of young people. In the same days in which the States General of Natality was noting the substantial immobilism of politics in the face of the by now proclaimed demographic winter, in the newspapers and the halls of power there was intense discussion about maintaining the benefits of the 110% super bonus even in the face of the chasm in the public accounts that it has already created.

We must consider these two pieces of news together: to help the parents who are now raising the country’s many Leonardo and Geneva children, there are never any funds; in fact, let us remember that the ‘epoch-making’ reform of the single allowance passed in 2022 was achieved with 4-5 billion euro of additional annual expenditure, and even the increases passed by the Meloni government in 2023 were largely achieved with the savings made on the originally budgeted expenditure. In the same years, on the other hand, to allow middle-income and elderly people to renovate and develop their real estate, an additional debt of EUR 160 billion was casually created, which the Leonardo and Geneva of tomorrow will have to pay off.

This is a specific example of the general condition of Italian public spending. According to the report on intergenerational justice by the German Bertelsmann Stiftung Foundation, in 2012 Italy spent seven euros on public policies that predominantly favoured the elderly (pensions and healthcare) for every euro spent on policies that predominantly favoured the young (school, university and labour policies).

Why does the near-unanimity of the political spectrum not find problematic the idea of imposing heavy deferred taxation on the young in the form of public debt to favour the interests of today’s adults and elderly homeowners? The answer in the end is quite simple: minors do not vote and therefore there is little to be gained – politically speaking – in serving their interests. The English colonists on the other side of the Atlantic made a revolution in the 1700s to claim the right to political representation derived from being generous contributors to the Crown. Two and a half centuries after no taxation without representation we must affirm the principle that no public debt can be created without the consent of the young people who will have to pay it.

In the European elections on 6-9th June, 16-year-olds will be able to vote in Belgium, Germany, Austria and Malta. Lowering the voting age to represent the political interests of young people is a good start, but it is not enough. First of all, one must have the courage to make an even more radical reduction in the voting age. The argument that minors would not have the cognitive abilities and sense of responsibility to vote is paternalistic, false and discriminatory. It is paternalistic because young people are the only category of citizens for whom we still require the fulfillment of some requirements to be able to exercise their basic right of citizenship. We used to use the same arguments to exclude the poor, women and ethnic minorities from voting. False because so many teenagers are already good citizens interested in the environment, education, employment, rights and so on.

Do we really think that one or a minor who marches on Fridays for his or her future with Fridays For Future, who dedicates his or her free time to volunteering, or who perhaps actively participates in one of the many youth organisations, has less political awareness than the almost half of the adult population who no longer even bother to go to the polls? Finally, it is discriminatory because if we believe that one can vote based on cognitive ability and awareness, we should use the same yardstick for the entire population, considering that cognitive abilities peak around the age of thirty-five and that they tend to decline in older age (not to mention those who suffer from pathologies that also affect cognition).

Certainly, no one wants to question the right to vote of older adults who have below-average cognitive abilities for some reason: that would be unthinkable folly; we simply pose the question of why we deny the right to vote to young people on this very principle. For these reasons, the voting age should be radically reduced. Infants and children, certainly not capable of exercising their citizenship independently through voting, would still be excluded.

To promote their political rights, it is high time and hour to seriously consider the idea of the fiduciary vote, which parents could exercise on behalf of their children until such time as they are able to express it independently. Fiduciary voting is an idea that dates back at least to Antonio Rosmini’s draft constitution of 1848. If all citizens from birth could exercise their citizenship through voting, initially by proxy to their parents and later – when they were ready to do so – directly, politicians would have to revise their electoral programs to win over this new segment of the electorate; this would bring about a radical change in public policy in favour of young people and their future.

While we wait to see a tomorrow where the concept of “universal suffrage” is truly fulfilled, from this election onward we two adults willingly give up our right to vote to allow our children, young people with their whole lives ahead of them (and debts incurred by our generation to be paid off), to try to affect more and better than we are able to do. Of course, our household of eight citizens (five minors) will still cast only three votes and therefore, even if all parents of minor children did as we do, the overall effect on public policy would remain limited. But we are confident that it would be an opportunity to finally talk about policy with and for young people, in the country as well as in individual households.

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