Votes at 16: A Bold and Democratic Move or an Irresponsible Idea Without an Argument?

a bold move to encourage the long-term political engagement of new generations

As the right to vote parallels with other civic responsibilities, such as jury duty and being elected to parliament, the age of eligibility for them should match at 18. So say the defenders of the current voting age.

But 18 is not a universal age of majority. 16 year olds can work full-time, pay National Insurance contributions and income tax, and join the armed forces. 17 year olds can legally drive, and effectively be treated as adults by the justice system if accused of a crime. Only at 21 can someone adopt a child. Clearly maturity is open to interpretation within a specific context. We entrust MPs as lawmakers to make these judgements.

There is a broader justification for the reform. Although we witnessed an unprecedented level of youth engagement in the 2017 general election, around forty percent of 18 to 24 year olds did not vote, compared to thirty percent of voters overall.

One measure to improve democratic participation is compulsory voting, as in Australia and Belgium, but this is objected to on civil liberties grounds.

Lowering the voting age to 16 would not only expand suffrage. It would be a bold move to encourage the long-term political engagement of new generations.

It would require a more rigorous teaching of politics in schools and colleges. This would be academically influential, ingrain a sense of responsibility and might inspire young people - from all backgrounds - to become representatives themselves.

As young voters overwhelmingly support the Labour Party, a left-wing bias might be suspected of the initiative. Had 16 and 17 year olds voted in the Brexit referendum, the result would have been all the more closer, given the young will be most affected by the long-term consequences.

However, a year after they were allowed to vote in the Scottish independence referendum, the Scottish Parliament unanimously lowered the voting age to 16 in local and devolved elections. Scotland did not descend into anarchy. In fact, the next year the Scottish Conservatives became the official opposition.

Former Tory chancellor George Osborne suggests there would be a resounding majority for lowering the voting age in the House of Commons. It would be an appropriate social change a century on from women first being granted voting rights.

Politicians anxious about votes at 16 seem to view youth empowerment as a liability. Frankly they come across as behind the times and afraid of democracy. Voters that bothered by the prospect could simply make sure to turnout themselves.

Jacob Richardson

Politicians are saying that they are old enough to decide the governance of the country but not their own governance

Claiming something as an idea whose “time has come” is generally the sign of either a losing argument or an arrogant one. Such is the debate over votes at 16: nobody actually presents a rationale.

Great change often happens when society changes or because the facts change. The First World War demonstrated practically what common sense had long dictated: women were capable of working in a man’s world. Equal marriage legislation came from an acceptance that homosexuality was not perverse but innate.

In the United States, voting was lowered from 21 to 18 after the sight of young men, not eligible, to vote, being drafted during WW2 and Vietnam.

There is no equivalent in today’s debate. Only exploitative opportunism.

Public opinion is consistently, and overwhelmingly, against lowering the age at which citizens can vote. Two recent commissions (in 2004 and 2009) have rejected Votes at 16.

If anything, the trend is moving towards raising the age of adulthood.

Coming of age is fractured in the UK but what young people can do at 16 is outweighed by what they cannot do. While 16 year olds can have sex, join the army or get married, they can only do the last two with the consent of an adult. (Moreover, under 18s cannot be deployed on the frontline.) They can sign legal contracts but they cannot be held liable for breaking those contracts.

Over 80% of 16-18 year olds (and increasing) are still in full-time education or work-based learning. Fewer have jobs than in previous generations and those that do, have substantially different employment rights to over 18 year olds.

Politicians are saying that they are old enough to decide the governance of the country but not their own governance. If advocates of Votes at 16 were honest, they might debate 16 as the new age of adulthood.

So 16 year olds could vote but they could also buy cigarettes, buy alcohol and take their driving tests. They could sign rental contracts without the need for a parental guarantor - or even buy property. And, of course, 16 years old could serve on juries, dealing with rape, murder, or tax fraud.

That could be the deal, but it’s not. 16 year olds cannot get the nice bits of living in a free society while still forgoing some of the more cumbersome responsibilities. It shows a flippant regard for democracy.

Calling something progressive does not make it so. Only a slim majority of 16-18 year olds want the franchise extended. It is, in fact, incredibly patronising to suggest that the main way to encourage democratic participation is to reduce the voting age by a couple of years when the issues surrounding disengagement are vast and complicated.  

If advocates genuinely wanted to increase youth engagement, perhaps they would endorse citizenship education at schools, compulsory courses in modern studies that includes current affairs, a National Citizenship Service that promotes democratic engagement. None of this universal, yet people leap to reducing the voting age as some panacea for which they present no evidence. It is backwards.

It is worse than patronising, it is irresponsible. 

Graham Kirby

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