Opinion: Lowering the voting age

In recent weeks the issue of lowering the voting age has risen its head again. This must come up almost every general election. At the moment you need to be 18 to vote. The Conservatives have no plans to lower this age, Labour say they will lower it to 16. Some argue that this doesn’t go far enough and the voting age should be 16. In this blog post I look at the pros and cons of lowering the voting age and suggest possible reasons why Theresa May, or other party leaders, might not have done this in the past.The biggest issues most people seem to have with lowering the voting age is that they claim 16 is too young to take on adult responsibilities or that  16 year olds won’t necessarily have a true understanding of what they are voting for. For me both of these are weak arguments and do a great disservice to young people.

The first of these,  16 is too young, is a nonsense. There are many activities which could be considered adult which you can do at 16, or younger.

At 16, you are old enough to join the army with parental permission.

While these a 16 year old won’t see active combat they are still being expected to sign up to serve their country and engage in adult activities. Its a sad fact that training exercises can go wrong resulting in the lose of life. If the British government allows a 16 year old to serve their country shouldn’t they also be allowed a voice in saying how it should be run?

There are other age related issues as well.

At 16 teenagers can engage in sexual activity.

Sex is a very grown up activity with the potential for, literally, life changing consequences. If, as a society, we are saying its ok to have sex at 16 and expecting 16 year old’s to make rational adult decisions about it then why can’t we also trust them enough to vote?  The immediate answer is to raise the age of consent to be in line with the voting age.  Although this won’t necessarily criminalise every hormonal teenager, it will quite possibly increase the risk of hidden sexual activity leading to a rise in unplanned pregnancies etc.

At age 16 teenagers move from children to adult health services.

In fairness this isn’t necessarily true for all health services, for example CAMHS. But the point really is that at 16, in general, the health service considers a 16-year-old as more of an adult than a child. If a 16-year-old was to be hospitalised they are more likely to go onto an adult ward rather than a children’s ward.

Children who are in care transfer out of residential care homes.

While a 16-18 year old are still supported they are no longer considered children at 16 years of age.

At 16 you can get an apprenticeship.

The school-leaving age has been raised from 16 to 18, meaning anyone under 18 is meant to be in education. However a 16-year-old can get a paid apprenticeship and will pay tax and national insurance contributions deducted from what they earn. If a 16-year-old is expected to pay for public services etc in tax then shouldn’t they have a say in how their taxes are being spent?

At 17 you can drive a car.

Ok so not 16 but still lower than the current voting age. Like sex driving a car is an adult activity with an adults responsibilities.

Then there’s a myriad of other thing you can do at 16 or lower  such as:

  • Be expected to pay adult prices in a cinema, (age 15)
  • Have a shotgun licence at 14 (although you need to be a member of a gun club)
  • You can drink alcohol is brought by an adult. (age 16)
  • Get married with consent (age 16)
  • Apply for a passport without parental consent (age 16)
  • Leave home with or without parental consent (age 16)
  • Drive a moped or invalid carriage (age 16)
  • In certain circumstances you must pay for prescriptions, dental treatment and eye test (age 16)
  • Consent to medical treatment (age 16)

Uneducated enough at 16.

The other big sticking point is that of education. Opponents of lowering the voting age argue that, at 16, a teenager doesn’t have enough knowledge or understanding to know what they are voting for.  There are two main flaws with this. Firstly I’d argue than many adults also lack the knowledge and understanding of how politics works, yet they have a vote. For example, from reading various comments online, many have made comments about how Theresa May is un-elected as Prime Minister (just as they did when Gordon Brown took over from Tony Blair.) Yet we, the people, have NEVER directly voted for the PM. We only chose our local representative. It is the party which chooses the leader and, if that party wins an election, that leader becomes PM.  (and even that explanation is a gross simplification).

It becomes even more complex when you consider issues such as Brexit. How many of those who voted knew EXACTLY what they were voting for? For most it came down to one, maybe two, issues.  The entire situation was much more complex than that.

Secondly its worth considering that the Secondary School National Curriculum includes lessons on Citizenship.This includes lesson on ‘fundamental British values’, ‘the rule of law’ and ‘democracy’. This means that, if taught well, the average teenager would know more about how politics works than the average adult. Yet the adult gets to vote and the 16-year-old doesn’t?

The common theme of all of these points is that we expect a 16-year-old to be a member of our society yet we don’t treat them as such. We expect them to start taking more grown up responsibilities but don’t, as a society, respect the contribution they could make.

Why it hasn’t happened before.

I think there is one clear reason why lowering the voting age hasn’t happened before. And it’s not the teenagers fault but us adults that is to blame. Most adults have entrenched views. We vote the way we have always done. Only in exceptional circumstances will we vote differently, usually with a particular goal in mind such as voting tactically to remove a particular party from power.  It is the minority ‘floating’ voters which have more of a direct impact on an elections results.

Now consider a 16, or 17-year-old voting for the  first time.

They haven’t yet made up their mind on who to vote for. Hopefully they are educated enough to make an informed decision based on evidence rather than following an entrenched view.  This would mean that at each election there will be a whole raft of voters who none of the politicians, regardless of party colour, will know how they are going to vote.

And that scares the politicians!

Voter apathy is always high. Most elections are actually only decided by a minority of the electorate. Brexit was decided on a turn out of approx 70% whereas the recent local election, here in Cumbria, was only a turn out of about 30-35%.

It’s always a small number of people deciding who gets to run our country.

Allowing a 16 or 17 year old to vote would hopefully become habit-forming, leading to larger turnouts at future elections. We would then have a society which is more engaged with politics and more willing to hold those who we elect to high office accountable for the decisions they make in our name.

 

 

 

 

 

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4 comments

  1. One quibble. The Labour Party manifesto clearly promises votes from age 16.
    The rest is spot on.

    1. Thanks, I’m sure I read it as 17 somewhere- it seems not.

      Have now changed the blog post.

      Please feel free to share!

  2. Some nice arguments and a clear presentation of the case.

    On a side note and small quibble, I would disagree with the haranguing of people who talk of elected and un-elected Prime Ministers as being ill-informed. I would certainly talk in those terms whilst, of course, knowing full well that ‘technically’ we don’t.

    In much the same way that ‘technically’ defacing a coin or any other image of the Queen is against the law but no one is likely to have you arrested over it, many (possibly most?) people vote in general elections for the representative of the party they would like to see in power (and, as often as not, that’s dictated by whether or not you like the party leader). I know that I will certainly vote for my local candidate, even though I’m not keen on that person at all, because I will be really voting for the leader of that party to be PM come June 9th! If there was a more direct mechanism I would take it but as there isn’t I will vote the way I hope ensures our next PM is the right one.

    1. Thanks for your response.

      With regards the elected/un-elected Prime Ministers.

      Although I understand that quite a few people understand how voting works I’m not convinced that’s a universal truth. Politics seems to be becoming a question of personalities rather than policies. Something which seems to becoming more common each election.

      My issue is with the social media commentators who claim that we need an election because we never voted for May when she took over from Cameron.

      It was the same issue when Brown took over from Blair.

      It might have even been the same when Major took over from Thatcher, I don’t remember.

      I was only 16 in 1990 and not very politically active. Which is ironic given the nature of this blog- but then we had a different national curriculum (no citizenship or democracy lessons as such) and I honestly think most 16 year olds today are more clued up about politics than most 16 year olds were back then (which I know sounds like harking back to ‘the good old days!)

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