Votes for 16 year olds: the case for

Last September 16 and 17 year olds were given the right to vote in Scotland’s historic constitutional moment.  Now is the time for the rest of the UK to follow suit and extend the electoral franchise in order to reconnect youngsters with representative democracy, argues University of East Anglia Student Matthew Gaskin.

The debate as to whether 16 year olds should be given the vote has sharply risen up the political agenda over the past 10 years or so.  16 and 17 year olds were given the right to vote in Scotland’s independence referendum in September.  Since 2003, when the ‘Votes at 16’ campaign was launched, there have been compelling arguments for extending the franchise to young people in order to reconnect a group of over 1.5 million people with the democratic process.  However, despite various reviews, bills and commissions, nothing has been done.  A significant number of parties support the change, including the Liberal Democrats and the Greens.  Ed Miliband came out in support during Labour’s 2013 conference in Brighton.  In November 2014, the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee produced a report which acknowledged the positive effects lowering the voting age would have and how Parliament should lead a national discussion into the matter.   There is therefore significant backing for this move, and I am going to explain why.

16 year olds can get married, have sex, rear a child for at least 16 years, join the armed forces and potentially fight on the frontline, leave school and become a member of the workforce, pay income tax (therefore paying into the system), give consent to medical treatment, apply for a passport without parental consent and at 17, can obtain a driving licence, to name a few.  Considering all these, it seems strange that this list does not extend to a fundamental human right: the right to vote.  Those who oppose extending the franchise argue that these rights are merely theoretical and do not have anything to do with voting, and that those under 16 are not politically mature enough.  It is argued that despite 16 year olds technically being allowed to fight on the frontline at 16, this goes against the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (see optional protocols), of which the UK is a signatory.  This defines childhood extending to 18.  However, the UK has only given qualified support to this, and the armed forces cannot guarantee that those aged 16 or 17 will not be given this serious responsibility.

These rights granted to 16 and 17 years are extensive, and the fact that they have them in the first place, even if they don’t exercise them, is by the virtue of the fact that they are deemed mature, responsible and adult enough to make rational decisions on extremely important matters.  Denying this age group the opportunity to influence the political process on issues that directly relate to them, for example the increase in tuition fees and the abolition of EMA, is unjust.  I am still yet to have the opportunity to vote in a General Election despite being nearly 21 and being affected by issues legislated on since the Coalition came into office, such as the rise in university tuition fees.  I am definitely not alone in this frustration – a study by IPSOS MORI showed that 39 per cent of young people want the voting age to be lowered, almost two in five.

One of the main areas of concern is that this age group are not politically mature enough to play their part in democracy to this extent, maturity explained predominantly as the level of interest and knowledge in the political system.  This claim is contradicted by research from Austria, where the minimum voting age for all elections is 16.  Evidence suggests that this age group have high levels of maturity to the extent that they are as mature as older voters.  Further, this study argues that the real problem may in fact lie with 18-20 year olds, where evidence shows that political interest is indeed higher for 16-17 year olds.  The evidence from Austria believes that, even if turnout for this age group is low, this is not driven by a lack of ability or motivation to vote.

Staying with Austria, I will now consider a further aspect to this debate: the effect lowering the voting age would have on voter turnout.  High voter turnout is seen to be a key indicator of a functioning democracy.  There is compelling evidence to suggest that there is a ‘first-time voting boost’ for 16 year olds, meaning they are more likely to vote first time than 18 year olds – results show that 64.2 per cent of 16-17 year olds voted first time around, compared to 56.3 per cent of 18-20 year olds.  This could also start a positive trend towards involvement in future elections.  Evidence from Vienna and Krems shows that turnout is indeed higher for 16 and 17 year olds and very close to the average turnout.  Furthermore, findings from Norway indicate a similar result when considering voter turnout.

There is a normative argument that because the significant will of the majority is not in favour of lowering the voting age, which is true, it should not happen.  The over-55s are most in support of keeping the age at 18 (88 per cent of respondents to a 2003 NOP poll).  Despite it being argued that significant issues should be shaped by the will of the majority, this does not mean to say that all issues that receive popular support are even considered by parliament.  Take the death penalty for example.  Time and time again the subject is granted enough support in e-petitions to be debated by parliament, but legislators are wholly reluctant to accept this view, and there is no significant party support to re-introduce capital punishment.  Even if many people reject the concept of lowering the voting age, this does not mean to say this should be an overriding reason to reject the notion.  An issue that is part of the legitimation of majoritarian procedures should not be decided by the will of the majority, such as electing representatives freely and fairly.

The case for lowering the voting age is strong, and the Select Committee’s recommendations that Parliament should lead a national debate followed by a free vote to MPs is welcomed.  The increase in support for this issue at Westminster may lead to change in the not too distant future, which will bring fairness to 16 and 17 year olds and improve British democracy.

Matthew Gaskin is a third year student at the University of East Anglia.  He studied the module The Politics of Elections and Electoral Malpractice run by Toby James.

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