The vast majority of countries in the world have established a voting age. Most governments consider that those of an age lower than the chosen threshold lack the necessary capacity to independently decide how to cast a vote. The voting age is often of such importance that it is set by means of a constitutional provision.
At the present time the voting age across the world is typically 18. When the right to vote was first accorded in democracies the voting age was generally set at 21, or in some cases at an even higher level. In the 1970s widespread reform led to a reduction to 18 in a large number of countries. Debate is currently underway in many places on proposals to reduce the voting age below 18.
Czechoslovakia was early to act, reducing its age to 18 in 1946, and by 1968 a total of 17 states had made the reduction. A large number of countries, particularly in Western Europe, reduced their voting ages to 18 during the 1970s. The United Kingdom was the first such country to do so, in 1970. It led a swift and widespread sweep of the world's leading democracies, with countries such as the United States, Canada, Australia and France following soon afterwards. By the end of the 20th century 18 had become by far the most common age at which citizens acquired the right to vote. There were however some countries, particularly those in Scandinavia, which maintained voting ages higher than 21.
Consideration of a reduction to 18 continued into the late 20th and early 21st century in those countries that had not already made the change. Reductions were seen in India, Switzerland, Austria and Morocco during this time. Since 2007, debate has been taking place in Japan, and a dispute is continuing in the Maldives. A reduction is probable to happen in 2008 in Lebanon as part of the new electoral law.
In the 2000s a number of legislative proposals for reductions of the voting age to 16 were made in various U.S. states, including California, Florida and Alaska, but ultimately none were successful. Proposals were made in 2005 for a national reduction in Canada and a state reduction in New South Wales, Australia, but again there was no success.
The voting age for municipal elections in some states was lowered to 16 in the early 2000s. Three states had made the reduction by 2003 (Burgenland, Carinthia and Styria), and in May 2003 Vienna became the fourth. Salzburg followed suit, and so by the start of 2005 the total had reached at least five states out of nine. As a consequence of state law, reduction of the municipal voting age in the states of Burgenland, Salzburg and Vienna resulted in the reduction of the regional voting age in those states as well.
Following the legislative election in 2006, the winning SPÖ-ÖVP coalition announced on 12 January 2007 that one of its policies would be the reduction of the voting age to 16 for elections in all states and at all levels in Austria. The policy was set in motion by a Government announcement on 14 March, and a bill proposing an amendment to the Constitution was presented to the legislature on 2 May. On 5 June the National Council approved the proposal following a recommendation to do so from its Constitution Committee. During the passage of the bill through the chamber relatively little opposition was raised to the reduction, with four out of five parties explicitly supporting it; indeed, there was some dispute over which party had been the first to suggest the idea. Greater controversy surrounded the other provisions of the bill concerning the Briefwahl, or postal vote, and the extension of the legislative period for the National Council from four to five years. A further uncontroversial inclusion was a reduction in the candidacy age from 19 to 18. The Federal Council approved the Bill on 21 June, with no party voting against it. The voting age was reduced when the Bill's provisions came into force on 1 July 2007. Austria thus became the first member of the European Union, and the first of the world's leading democracies, to adopt a voting age of 16 for all purposes.
The Votes at 16 coalition, a group of political and charitable organisations supporting a reduction of the voting age to 16, was launched on 29 January 2003. At this time a Private Member's Bill was also proposed in the House of Lords by Lord Lucas, and received a Second Reading on 9 January.
In 2004 the Electoral Commission conducted a major consultation on the subject of the voting and candidacy ages, and received a significant response. In its conclusions it recommended that the voting age remain at 18. On 29 November 2005 the House of Commons voted 136-128 (on a free vote) against a Bill for a reduction in the voting age to 16 proposed by Liberal Democrat MP Stephen Williams. Parliament chose not to include a provision reducing the voting age in the Electoral Administration Act during its passage in 2006.
On 27 February 2006 the report of the Power Inquiry called for a reduction of the voting age, and of the candidacy age for the House of Commons, to 16. On the same day the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, indicated in an article in The Guardian that he favoured a reduction provided it was made concurrently with effective citizenship education.
The Ministry of Justice published on 3 July 2007 a Green Paper entitled The Governance of Britain, in which it proposed the establishment of a "Youth Citizenship Commission". The Commission would, amongst other things, be tasked with examining the case for lowering the voting age. On launching the Paper the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, said in the House of Commons: "Although the voting age has been 18 since 1969, it is right, as part of that debate, to examine, and hear from young people themselves, whether lowering that age would increase participation.
The Scottish National Party's conference voted unanimously on 27 October 2007 for a policy of reducing the voting age to 16, as well as in favour of a campaign for the necessary power to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament.
Nineteen United States permit 17-year-olds to vote in primary elections and caucuses if they will be 18 years of age, by election day. An amendment to the state constitution is being considered in the Illinois legislature that would lower its voting age to 17 for non-federal elections, though states can set their voting age to lower than eighteen for federal elections as well. Because it only applies to state elections, seventeen-year-olds would not be able to vote in primaries and general elections for representatives, senators, and President of the United States even if the amendment passes the legislature and referendum.
Jersey followed suit on 4 July 2007, when it approved in principle a reduction of the voting age to 16. The States of Jersey voted narrowly in favour, by 25 votes to 21, and the legislative amendments were adopted on 26 September. The law was sanctioned by Order-in-Council on 12 December, and was brought into force on 1 April, in time for the general elections in late 2008.
On 31 October 2007 a proposal for a reduction made by the House Committee of the States of Guernsey, and approved by the States' Policy Committee, was adopted by the assembly by 30 votes to 15. An Order-in-Council sanctioning the law was made on 12 December, and it was registered at the Court of Guernsey on 19 December. It came into force immediately, and the voting age was accordingly reduced in time for the Guernsey general election, 2008.
The New Zealand Green Party MP Sue Bradford announced on 21 June 2007 that she intended to introduce her Civics Education and Voting Age Bill on the next occasion upon which a place became available for the consideration of Members' Bills. When this happened on 25 July Bradford abandoned the idea, citing an adverse public reaction. The Bill would have sought to reduce the voting age to 16 in New Zealand and make civics education part of the compulsory curriculum in schools.
A request to lower the voting age to 16 was made during the consideration of revisions to the Constitution of Venezuela in 2007. Cilia Flores, president of the National Assembly, announced that the Mixed Committee for Constitutional Reform had found the idea to be acceptable. Following approval in the legislature the amendment formed part of the package of constitutional proposals, and was defeated in the 2007 referendum.
A report suggesting that consideration be given to reducing the voting age to 16 in the Australian Capital Territory in Canberra, Australia was tabled in the territorial legislature on 26 September 2007. This prompted the Youth Affairs Council of Victoria to voice its support for the making of a similar reduction in that state.