Earlier this month I spoke at a conference for sixth formers on the pros and cons of lowering the voting age. Other panellists included the local Labour MP and a representative of the Electoral Reform Society, both of whom argued in favour of voting at 16. In contrast, I believe we should stick at 18, at least for elections to the UK parliament. I can see a stronger case for voting at 16 in local elections and (some!) referendums, but even then I would move slowly. Calls for votes at 16 as soon as the next general election are certainly premature, at best, and at worst they are a cynical attempt to skew the results.
By way of background, the voting age for UK parliamentary elections is 18. However, it has already been lowered to 16 for local and devolved election in Scotland, and 16-year olds were able to vote in the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. Wales is set to follow suit. The Isle of Man and Jersey lowered their voting ages to 16 some years ago. The consensus seems to be that these precedents have been positive (and I’ll come back to this point later).
Elsewhere, the usual voting age has also been lowered to 16 in Austria and in Malta. But the usual voting age is still 18 in the rest of the EU, and most of the rest of the world. Indeed, there are a handful of countries where it is higher than 18 (though Japan lowered from 20 to 18 in 2016).
So, what is the case for votes at 16? In summary, teenagers already have some rights and obligations at this age, so why not the vote? Young people are probably now much better informed, thanks to improvements in citizenship education in schools and the use of social media. Politicians may give more consideration to the interests of young people if they are also voters. It seems odd to have different voting ages for different elections – 16 appears to work fine in Scotland. And getting people involved sooner helps to strengthen political engagement in later life – voting is a habit.
I can see some merit in these arguments and suspect that, in due course, the voting age for all elections will be lowered to 16. But I remain far from convinced that the time is right to change now. The reality is that most 16 and 17-year olds are still children living at home and going to school. In my view, there is enough pressure on them already. Just imagine the online barrage of political advertising that they would face (some argue that even adults can’t be trusted to see through a dodgy Facebook post). Children are also more likely to be susceptible to parental influence to vote one way or another.
It is important to be clear too about what young people can already legally do at 16. Advocates of lowering the voting age often say that 16 is the threshold at which you can marry or join the army. But in England at least you would still require the consent of your parents or guardians, and would not be eligible to fight in combat roles.
At 16, the law does allow you to leave home or school, work up to 40 hours per week, become a company director, and have consensual sex with someone who is also at least 16. However, these are still not actions that society would usually encourage at such a young age. Instead, they are choices that society feels it should not have the right to stop people from making. This is an important distinction. And in England, a young person must be in some form of part-time education or training until they’re 18.
The obligation to pay taxes is frequently mentioned too, but I do not think it is that relevant. It is correct that 16 is the threshold for paying National Insurance Contributions (NICs), if you earn enough, and for receiving some state benefits. It is also the age at which you start to qualify for the National Minimum Wage.
But, in general, your liability for taxes depends on your income and expenditure, not your age. A successful child actor, for example, could pay a large amount of income tax. Everyone, regardless of age, pays indirect taxes, such as those on sugary drinks, and the same rates of VAT on the goods and services that they buy. In principle, this would include an 8-year old.
On the other hand, advocates of keeping the voting age at 18 sometimes argue that, as it is usually only adults who pay significant amounts of tax and therefore have to bear the cost of government spending, only adults should be able to vote (‘no representation without taxation’). I’m not convinced by this either. There are also plenty of adults who don’t earn enough to pay much tax at all, including retirees and those with caring responsibilities. Should they be denied the vote?
It is surely more significant that a large number of other rights and obligations only kick in at 18. For example, you have to wait until you are 18 to take out a mortgage, credit card or personal loan, serve on a jury, become a police officer, fight in the armed forces, get married without permission, see certain films, buy alcohol, tobacco, fireworks or a gun, or gamble.
Of course, 18 is to some extent arbitrary, and there is no reason why all age thresholds have to be the same. There might be a lower starting point for activities which are less likely to harm the individual, or others. I’ve heard some people argue that the voting age should be lowered to 16, while simultaneously arguing that the ages for buying alcohol and tobacco should be kept at 18 (or even raised), because drinking and smoking are dangerous activities. But if you can’t trust a child to make a relatively simple health choice on their own behalf, why allow them to decide the future of the entire country?
I’ve even seen it argued that the voting age should be lowered to the age of criminal responsibility, which is when a child can be arrested or charged with a crime. This is 10 in England and just 8 in Scotland. But most sensible people can surely see why the age at which it might be reasonable to expect a child to know that, say, stealing is wrong, should be a lot lower than the age at which they are allowed to vote.
I’m not swayed either when politicians say they have been impressed by the young people they have met and debated with. Those young people most active in politics, or who speak up at conferences, are a self-selecting group and not necessarily representative of the level of engagement and knowledge of the age group as a whole. (Sorry.)
Following on from this, I’ve also heard it suggested that if young people did not feel confident enough to vote, they would abstain, so that lowering the voting age would only empower those ready to use that right. But that’s simply not the basis on which age thresholds are decided. We do not, for example, allow children themselves to judge whether or not they are ready to drive, or mature enough to have sex.
Nor do I think the views of young teens are being suppressed. There are many other ways to engage effectively in politics at an early age, without having the vote until you are older. It’s a myth that people only vote on the basis of their own narrow self-interests. Adults do think of what is best for others, including their children and grandchildren, and the country more generally. They can therefore still be influenced by what young people have to say.
Put it this way – would anyone seriously argue that politicians care less about knife crime because the victims are often too young to vote? Or would anyone deny that Greta Thunberg’s voice is being heard? (Of course, some might suggest that her campaign illustrates why children should not be allowed to vote, but that’s a discussion for another day…)
That said, I am a little more sympathetic to arguments that referendums and local elections might be different. Referendums are relatively infrequent (‘once-in-a-generation decisions’) whereas you do not have to wait more than five years for the chance to vote in a general election. This in itself is not a decisive point – if you are not mature enough to vote in a general election why should a referendum be any different. But referendums are also more likely to be relatively straightforward binary decisions on a single issue, and often on a ‘moral’ question (such as same-sex marriage) where life experience may be less relevant.
Similarly, local elections are more likely to be about local services, rather than big national issues. Voting in local elections would also improve engagement at an earlier age, as a stepping stone to voting at general elections. This could also help with the problem of young people (especially students) not being on an electoral register.
Here, by the way, is my answer to those who say lowering the voting age to 16 has worked well in Scotland. This is important evidence, but not conclusive. Just as it may make sense to set a lower age threshold for, say, riding a moped than fighting in the army, so it might make sense to have a different voting age in different types of elections – lower for local elections and relatively straightforward referendums, but higher for nationwide elections.
I’d be especially wary of calls to lower the voting age in UK-wide elections based on the current impasse in Westminster. Opposition parties and Remainers backing a so-called ‘Confirmatory Referendum’ on Brexit all appear to view extending the franchise as an opportunity to pick up votes from younger people and ‘break the deadlock’.
However, this would only work if the new electors cast their votes decisively one way or the other. Of course, opposition parties and Remainers hope this would swing the outcome in their favour, but this would then be blatant gerrymandering.
In any event, it would surely be premature to change the law to allow 16 and 17-year olds to vote in the next general election, now expected as soon as December. What time would this give them to come up to speed? Should we really make such a major change to the voting rules without proper debate?
It would only make sense to lower the voting age once everyone involved has had more opportunity to prepare. This means more investment in citizenship education and ensuring that young people hear a wide range of views, not just those that are trendy or ‘progressive’. (For example, I’d like to see a module on the track record of socialism in other countries…)
Similar arguments apply to any repeat of the 2016 referendum on EU membership. As it happens, I don’t see the need for another ‘Peoples Vote’. But holding another referendum would already be controversial enough without changing the rules on voter eligibility at same time. That would be moving the goalposts even further.
What’s more, many MPs are claiming that they still can’t make an informed choice on Brexit after more than three years of parliamentary debate. Why do they think 16-year old children would be in any better position? That point applies to a general election which is likely to be dominated by Brexit too.
In summary, it’s surely not unreasonable to argue that people below a certain age are much less likely to be mature enough to vote. Classroom teaching and exposure to social media are no quick substitute for experience of the real world. Otherwise, why don’t we lower the voting age to, say, 14, or allow everyone to do anything they want at 16, including buy cigarettes, drive a bus, be sent to an adult prison, or die for their country? We have to draw lines somewhere.
By all means, let’s do more groundwork for a lower voting age in future. For now, though, the threshold for the most important UK-wide elections and referendums should remain at 18.