Should we lower the voting age to 16?

Next year, 16 and 17 year olds in Scotland will be afforded the right to vote in the Scottish Independence referendum. The reason for this, I would posit, is more on political grounds than principled ones, with Alex Salmond assuming that a majority of young people prefer independence and will vote accordingly. Whether he is right or wrong, and whether they do or don’t, the idea of extending the vote to 16 and 17 year olds is gaining some traction south of the border. In his recent Party Conference speech Ed Miliband said that a Labour government would extend the franchise to 16 and 17 year old across the rest of the UK. And right now there is a Bill going through the House of Lords proposing to extend voting rights down to 16 year olds. While a lowering of the voting age is highly unlikely in the short term, Salmond’s decision has opened up the debate once again.

Despite renewed discussion there does not seem to be any widespread desire to lower the voting age at this current juncture. The Youth Citizenship Commission found in 2009 that while a majority of 16 and 17 year olds were in favour of being given the vote, the majority of people over the age of 18 were opposed. It is natural for young people on the cusp of adulthood to crave greater responsibility but lowering the voting age would also need to be accompanied by the provision of other responsibilities. Common arguments for lowering the voting age include the facts that you can get married at 16, that you can sign up to the armed forces at 16, and pay taxes at 16; (according to the Citizens’ Advice Bureau there is no minimum age at which someone should start paying tax). Yet in other areas of life the trend has been to take away responsibility from 16 and 17 year olds. You cannot legally buy fireworks, alcohol or knives if you are under 18; you cannot serve on a jury until you are 18; from this September young people will be required to remain in some form of education or training until they are 18; and there is currently a consideration to raise the driving age to 18. So where responsibility is given in one form it is taken away in another.

Another argument for lowering the voting age is that it would somehow invigorate British politics and give an otherwise disenfranchised youth the chance to participate and engage with the political process. I think this is true to a degree, and there is the argument that young people should have a say in matters that will affect them in the future. But if we are considering votes for 16 year olds, why not in a few years’ time lower it to 14 year olds? However arbitrary 18 years old might seem as a cut-off age to some people there has to be one at some point. And where is the evidence that lowering the voting age will see vast swathes of 16 and 17 year olds rushing to voting booths? Certainly there was none from the Youth Citizenship Commission. And evidence from the past two general elections shows that very few young people actually vote. According to Ipsos/MORI only 37% and 44% of 18 to 24 year olds respectively turned out to vote in 2005 and 2010, the lowest turnouts of any age group surveyed.

But if the voting age were to be lowered it should be a means to an end rather than an end in itself. Inviting more young people to tick a box once every couple of years only papers over the cracks of a deeper malaise with politics, and many young people (and the population as a whole) have turned to alternative sources to express their politics. The Occupy movement immediately springs to mind.

The Scottish referendum will alter the UK forever, regardless of the result, and far more than any single election would. On balance it is probably correct that 16 and 17 year olds get to have a say this one time and it will certainly be interesting to see how many turn out to vote and which way they vote. But looking at the numbers post-referendum isn’t a good enough indicator of whether it should be introduced more widely. In a post-2014 United Kingdom (or whatever it will be called by then) it will be the unenviable task of politicians from all countries and sides to legitimately say to a 16 year old from Scotland that they can vote in the Scottish referendum in 2014 but not vote in a general election in 2015 because they are not old enough.

I don’t think I was mature enough at 16 or 17 to make a reasoned decision for whom to vote, but that is not to say others wouldn’t be. Even so I think the voting age is correct for now. Who knows what will happen in the future for the issue to come to an unavoidable head, but teenagers have more to care about and enough to worry about, without the burden of responsibility that comes with being eligible to vote.