With three upcoming elections; the local elections, the London mayoral election and a General Election, as well as the United States presidential election, 2024 is shaping up to be the year of politics. With this influx of attention, it’s a good time to reexamine some of the key contemporary political debates around the issue of lowering the voting age to 16, and the arguments for each side.

The Main Arguments

One argument for lowering the voting age maintains that the parameters of who can and cannot vote often change throughout history. Another points to positive cases such as Scotland and Wales, where early enfranchisement suggests an increased likelihood of citizens continuing to vote into adulthood.

Some of the key arguments against lowering the voting age point out that 16-17-year-olds may not have enough political literacy skills to use their vote meaningfully and that including them in the franchise would only weaken democracy. 

Let’s examine each side in turn.

Changing Times

The norms and laws around who can vote aren’t fixed, so any change may seem daring. The Representation of the People Act 1969 lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. The UK was the first country in Western Europe to do this and it was seen as odd and revolutionary at the time. After it was done, many other countries followed suit.

Before that, however, when women were first given the vote in the UK in 1918, it was seen as odd — especially when voting rights were only given to men over 21 and only to most women over the age of 30. The voting age wasn’t the same for all genders until 1928 when it was still 21. Going further back, it wasn’t until 1867 that working men had the vote, and even then they still had to meet property qualifications which meant that only wealthy men had the vote.

History suggests that just because 16 and 17-year-olds do not have the vote now, it does not imply that they should not have it.

The Mature Voter

The idea that 16-17-year-olds may lack the maturity and education needed to use their vote meaningfully is a recurring objection. 

Arguments of maturity are difficult to establish universally. Some argue that those under a certain age are still children. Others maintain that the concept of childhood is an artificial construct and changes over time. Indeed, some observe that if a 16-year-old is seen as mature enough to have a job or get married, then they are old enough to have a say in how the country is run.  Of course, others point out that set limits on the number of hours 16-17-year-olds can work and the fact of needing parental consent before one can marry, suggests that there is a lack of sufficient maturity at that age. 

Arguments that point to a lack of political literacy amongst young people are easier to address. The connection between education and voter reform has historical precedent. The three Reform Acts between 1867 and 1928 didn’t happen in a vacuum. The legislative changes that accompanied the Reform Acts included the Secret Ballot Act of 1872, which awarded voters privacy, and the Corrupt and Illegal Practises Act of 1883, which removed bribery (including using food and drink as bribes!) and limited the amount of money that could be spent on election campaigns and the ongoing redistribution of seats, to spread MPs more fairly across populations.

The extension of education was another key part of the extension of the franchise. When people discussed extending the vote, a key concern was that each new group of voters would ‘throw away’ their vote because they didn’t know how to use it properly. Sound familiar? These same arguments are used today as objections to lowering the voting age to 16.

In the 1800s, voting reforms were accompanied by Education Acts passed between 1870 and 1972, which introduced compulsory education for all children aged 5-12, increasing literacy.

In the 21st century, improving political literacy skills is crucial for all citizens, especially younger people. The British Youth Council, which is campaigning to lower the voting age, published a report with seven key recommendations: educate young people; reduce misinformation; enfranchise early; offer opportunities for young people to see themselves reflected through a dedicated Youth Minister; promote an inclusive democratic system through Parties using universal language and include young people in their manifestos; eliminate barriers to voting by removing photographic voter ID requirements and automatically registering voters at 16 when they receive notification of National Insurance and secure the future of voting by having polling stations in schools; introduce longer voting hours and allow for digital voting. 

Helping Young Voters

Currently, in the UK, those in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland can vote in UK Parliamentary Elections from the age of 18. Those in England and Northern Ireland also need to be 18 to vote in local government elections, but in Scotland and Wales, younger people can vote in devolved elections and local government elections.

In Scotland, teenagers were first given the vote at 16 in 2014 for the Independence Referendum. Here, 75 per cent of 16 and 17-year-olds voted. In 2021, The University of Edinburgh and the University of Sheffield produced a joint report on voting in Scotland between 2014-2021. Their key findings showed that those who were able to vote at 16 were more likely to continue voting than those who first voted at 18; that positive engagement did not extend to wider political engagement outside of voting; that political inequality was still present regardless of the age they were given the vote; and that the main indication of political engagement in those aged 16-31 was their family.

The above suggests a need for further political literacy and political engagement to reduce voting inequalities. It can be argued that if lowering the voting age doesn’t cure political inequality or political apathy, then what’s the point? In 2022, The Electoral Commission noted that 1 in 5 Welsh 16-17-year-olds registered to vote ahead of the local elections, which is evidence against lowering the voting age. Returning to the Representation of the People Act 1969, the first election saw 65 per cent of the newly enfranchised 18-21-year-olds voting. This number steadily fell. LSE explains that the fall was due to a lack of socialisation and political literacy given to the newly enfranchised group, suggesting that focusing on these two areas may help improve current voting figures. 

Whilst votes at 16 is the headline of the campaign, the other points raised by the British Youth Council should be considered in conjunction when assessing the practicality of lowering the voting age.

Enfranchising early is only one of the Youth Council’s manifesto points. The other is to educate young people; reduce misinformation; give opportunities for young people to see themselves reflected; promote an inclusive democratic system; eliminate barriers to voting; and secure the future of voting.

If anything, history teaches us that democracy is an evolving concept with changing questions and answers. It’s time we embrace change and help our young people become better citizens by teaching them politics.

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