Austria and Albania
In 2007, the voting age in Austria was reduced to 16 years, an approach increasingly being adopted in Europe, notably for the European Parliament elections. However, the spectrum of citizenship education for this age group depends on the type of school and therefore does not reach all first-time voters. Studies show that election turnout can rise when lowering the voting age is combined with sufficient civic and voter education. They have also revealed that young people casting their
vote for a second time are more likely to remain active voters in adult life.
This is why the civil society initiative ‘wahlbeobachtung.org’ (Election-Watch.EU) has developed a classroom module for the election-related socialisation of young students. It has been adapted for the European Parliament elections and linked to young voters’ exposure to candidates in a plenary discussion. It has since been developed into a project for young voters in an EU-accession candidate country, Albania. Building on these experiences, Austrian civil society continues to advocate for youth inclusion in the electoral process in a non-partisan manner as electoral reforms continue.
Demand for citizenship education for young and first- time voters.
Practical exercises and workshops on electoral reforms.
Existing youth engagement activities that can be associated with the initiative.
A pool of engaged individuals (for example CSO leaders, teachers, interested supporters on the side of donors, international organisations or the media).
The ability to identify opportunities, adapt methodologies and invent new approaches.
Flexibility and adaptability in delivery (for example, during COVID-19 measures).
Communication and information exchange between youth and policy makers.
Public outreach, with proposals for building a larger audience.
A voting age that helps integrate young and first-time voters in citizenship education (16 in Austria).
Engaging youth in the electoral process
It started with an individual initiative, when Election-Watch.EU began to comment publicly on electoral reforms from a non-partisan and independent civil society perspective. This followed the 2016 electoral crisis in Austria, where the presidential run-off had to be completely rerun. Working with a committed high school teacher,
Election-Watch.EU developed a classroom module for educating young and first time voters on democratic principles and electoral practices. Subsequently, Election-Watch.EU piloted and rolled out a workshop for this age group entitled ‘Electoral Systems and the Understanding of Democracy’.
This five-hour, practice-oriented, interactive module was accessible to all students in vocational and higher training schools in Burgenland province. In the workshop, facilitators shared their own international election observation experience, while students learned about the foundations of democracy and the role of elections from a comparative perspective. Using ballot simulation exercises, participants could experience various electoral systems from around the world and compare them to Austria. Importantly, the workshop was created jointly by students, teachers and experts, contributing to its success. The Association of Austrian Adult Education Centres awarded the 2018 Barbara Prammer Prize to Election-Watch.EU for “Outstanding work and initiatives in the field of civic education” at the national parliament.
Stepping up youth engagement for elections to the European Parliament
Election-Watch.EU continued to offer citizenship education to young and first-time voters in the public education system ahead of the May 2019 European Parliament elections. As part of European Youth Week and through a Memorandum of Understanding on voter education with the European Parliament, Election-Watch.EU’s workshop format was adapted to raise awareness of European electoral processes and the European Parliament’s electoral system.
Students from five different schools across Austria prepared questions for a panel discussion with leading candidates from all political parties. Over 150 young students and trainees took part. In a lively discussion, candidates answered questions on the environment, migration and legislative developments, providing an overview of policy options on offer at the ballot. It also helped broaden students’ knowledge of the EU and increase their motivation to vote in the European elections.
Following the event, short motivational and informational videos directed at young voters were disseminated via social media, to amplify the impact of the event among youth prior to election day. Subsequently, Election-Watch.EU was invited to present its work with young and first-time voters in Austria at the Elections Night for European Parliament partner organisations in Brussels.
Expanding activities to the European neighbourhood: Albania
Building on these experiences and advocating for electoral reforms from a civil society perspective at European level, Election-Watch. EU developed a project for young and first-time voters in an EU accession candidate country, Albania, in 2020-21 in partnership with the Albanian Young Professionals Network (YPN) and with funding by the Robert Bosch Foundation.
Due to political disputes and compromises, electoral reform was underway in Albania related to the process of EU accession. However, civic space has been shrinking in recent years. Young voters are often not fully aware of the ongoing reforms and their opportunities to contribute. This highlighted the need for enhanced civic education and motivation ahead of the April 2021 Albanian parliamentary elections.
The heart of the project was the ‘Active Youth in the Electoral Process’ workshop, dedicated to improving the knowledge and skills of a generation of young Albanian voters, helping them engage with elections in a non-partisan manner. It included learning modules from the Austrian module, touching on the electoral cycle, electoral stakeholders and international standards. There were also new materials on European electoral values and Albania’s EU integration, with inputs from international organisations and the Albanian Central Elections Commission. Following three online preparatory sessions, the participants met face-to-face in the Albanian countryside, where they learned about their own electoral system in detail and developed content to contribute to voter education via social media. The youth were also encouraged to launch follow-up activities to disseminate the workshop findings to a larger audience. According to the project website, posts reached more than 10,000 people.
The overwhelming majority of participants stated that the workshop experience will prove useful in future. In the project’s external evaluation, the evaluator concluded that “the rule of law has become more important for the participants”. This was seen as a significant outcome, given the drop in public trust in the Albanian electoral process and the small role for youth engagement in it.
A survey of workshop participants on their subsequent election-related engagement showed that the experience had increased their motivation to become active citizens. On election day, 13 of 19 participants engaged in roles other than voters. Seven were technical operators in the election administration, six were election observers and 10 participants took part in follow-up projects, including voter education videos, OpEds and research on elections and COVID-19 and a social media monitoring pilot project.
Ongoing advocacy for electoral reforms and youth engagement in Austria
Election-Watch.EU continues its advocacy for electoral reforms and non-partisan youth engagement, including at the Austrian Parliament. A study among poll workers conducted jointly with the Vienna Center for Electoral Research5 found that one measure for improving youth engagement in the electoral process could be to make them part of the election day administration, linking this to the civic and voter education activities described above. In Austria, polling station committee members are nominated by the political parties, similarly to other EU Member States. However, parties are facing recruitment problems, casting doubts on the sustainability of the approach. By including non-partisan young and first-time voters on polling station committees, it could both bridge this gap and provide citizenship education opportunities.
The underlying hypothesis is that if voters engage in elections at an early stage as polling station committee members, it enhances their socialisation in democratic participation and their potential for constructive contribution to future functioning democracy. This would involve creating a pool of poll workers that included youth. When the Austrian government tabled electoral reforms for 2023, this idea was adopted. Election-Watch.EU continues to advocate for youth inclusion while these reforms are ongoing.