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German Youths Don't Find Voting at 16 All That Sweet

It's a first for Europe, but it's being greeted largely with a shrug: The German state of Lower Saxony has given 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote in local elections.

Here in Hannover that means high-schoolers will have an opportunity to oust, or to return to office, a mayor who has been governing since before any of them were born.

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But if an informal discussion with Peter Dumann's class of 11th-graders at the Rodenbruch Comprehensive School here is a fair indication, the 146,000 newly enfranchised young Lower Saxons will not exactly be breaking down doors to get into the polling places this Sunday.

"I'm not interested," a student named Philipp says frankly. "And my friends aren't either."

Raised hands show that not quite half the group is planning to vote, and that more than a third has decided to sit the elections out. Several remain, in that time-honored political tradition, "undecided."

"I think it's quite good to have 16-year-olds able to vote, but a lot of them don't have the basis for making sound decisions," says another student, Lena. Some of the 15 parties contesting this election, she says, have appealed to young voters on the basis of issues such as "where to build places to skateboard. But those aren't really the important issues."

"Sixteen is too young," chimes in a classmate, Jakob.

The voting age was lowered last November by the state legislature to give young people a "first step" into politics, as Werner Buss, one of the governing Social Democrats, said at the time. Youth advocates and the churches had favored the change, but not the public as a whole - not even the under-18 group.

An Allensbach Institute poll conducted shortly before the legislative changes in Lower Saxony found 80 percent of the public opposed to lowering the voting age. It also found 16- and 17-year-olds opposed, 49 percent to 44 percent. Indeed, the institute found the 44-percent-in-favor figure high, given that over long years of polling, only about 1 in 5 Germans under 20 has claimed to be interested in politics.

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But it is decisionmaking capacity, not interest in politics per se, that should be the criterion for the right to vote, argues Klaus Hurrelmann, a social scientist at the University of Bielefeld.

His research into young people's politics since the mid-1980s has been credited for moves to lower the voting age in several German states. "We find there are hardly any differences between the 14- and 15-year-olds, on one hand, and the 18-year-olds, on the other. They're all interested in the same global themes: the environment, unemployment, poverty."

Young people in their early teens are already making their own decisions about spending money, church membership, and school careers, "so why should they be cut off from one of the fundamental rights in a democratic society, the right to vote?" Professor Hurrelmann asks. He concedes that young people have low voting rates but says that enfranchising them earlier may help build their interest in politics.

That could be what is happening back in Mr. Dumann's classroom in Hannover, where one of the boys in the room remarks, as if the idea in occurring to him for the first time, "After the elections, I may join a party." One of the arguments for lowering the voting age was that German parties accept members at age 16.

Across the state, voters will be electing mayors as well as city and local councils.

Both Dumann and Hurrelmann see lowering the voting age as a way to support the youth vote within an aging population. A more active youth vote would help ensure that young people's issues are brought to the table for discussion, Dumann suggests to his class.

"What about all the young people who have no apprenticeships?" he asks, mentioning a topic much under discussion at this back-to-school time of year. "If they all voted, don't you think the politicians would figure out how to find them slots?"

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