Lowering the voting age

Public Relations Office        May 30, 2017

Kazunori INAMASU, Associate Professor, School of Sociology (Social psychology, public opinion, media)

Kazunori INAMASU, Associate Professor, School of Sociology

Do young people today take an interest in politics? Some people would probably respond
that students today don’t watch the news and are surprisingly uninterested in politics, while others would contend that today’s students are vastly more interested in politics than were their counterparts during their own time in school. Both of these answers are correct, and they are accurate descriptions of the students with whom the respondents have experience.

If a student is interested in spending his or her free time getting involved with politics, the unlimited amount of political information available on the Internet today makes it vastly easier to obtain information than in the past, in terms of both quality and quantity. At the same time, there are more internships available with Diet members, and there are more NPOs working to encourage young people to participate in politics.

On the other hand, there are many young people who have no exposure to political information due to a decline in the number of opportunities they have to interact with mass media. Glancing at the news occasionally as if at a clock and reading the top stories on the front page of the newspaper is one way to learn about politics quickly and easily, but the Internet poses a greater hurdle for individuals who want to learn more about politics on their own.

In short, the problem with the relationship between today’s young people and politics is not a generally low level of interest, but rather individual differences in interest and knowledge among young people. When the restrictions on the use of the Internet for political campaigning were relaxed in 2013, there were notably youngsters who courted the votes of similarly aged young people on social media—specifically on Twitter and Facebook—but their calls went no further than people who were already interested in politics.

The difference between the decision to lower the voting age to 18 and the decision to liberalize online campaigning lies in the possibility of raising young peoples’ level of interest and knowledge through initiatives by educational institutions. Classes for high-school students and first-year university courses with high enrollment can serve as an effective way to access those students who lack interest in politics in contrast to Internet use, which strongly reflects the preferences of individual users such as news-oriented and entertainmentoriented. Excessive resistance to bringing politics into the educational setting in Japan has served to keep young people at arm’s reach from politics, but educating young people as voters in high schools and universities seems certain to take on a new level of importance following the decision to lower the voting age to 18.

Hanako OHMURA, Associate Professor, School of Policy Studies, (Theory of political behavior, comparative politics)

Hanako OHMURA, Associate Professor, School of Policy Studies

The Japanese government has decided to lower the voting age from 20 to 18 in a change that will take effect in the 2016 summer of the House of councilors election. There has been discussion in a number of democratic nations about lowering the voting age for national and local elections from 18 to 16, or to an even younger age. There has been a movement to expand voting rights in Japan as well based on an awareness of this global trend. The addition of a new, younger generation is expected to raise voter turnout and increase young people’s interest in politics and elections.

Will voter turnout increase in line with expectations as an effect of the expansion of voting rights? I don’t mean to pour water on a new initiative, but it is not necessarily true that newly enfranchised voters will continue to flock to the polls on an ongoing basis just because the voting age has been lowered. Looking at past examples from Japan and abroad, there is an initial tendency for voter turnout to rise after an expansion of voting rights due to the awareness-raising measures that are carried out at the same time. However, the bonus derived from the introduction of new programs will eventually dissipate. Then voter turnout will return to previous levels (in some cases, it may even trend lower!).

What we ought to be considering is whether raising voter turnout is quite so important after all. Most of us understand that the right to vote is an important one. We see the fact that many people stay away from the polls as a problem, and we consider it a good thing that the number of people voting should increase. However, even if we grant that raising voter turnout is an important process and means, we should not consider it to be the ultimate goal. Shouldn’t the goal in expanding voting rights be to illuminate the expectations of a new generation of voters with regard to politics and apply them to actual practice?

If we look at things that way, there is an urgent need to identify what the 18- and 19-year-olds who have become new voters wish to accomplish through politics. Civic education will become even more important than it has been in the past. Only when a cycle has taken hold in which voters themselves understand what they want from politics, go to the polls to achieve those goals, and are satisfied with actual policy will we be able to conclude that lowering the voting age was an effective policy.