Image Description – Young person at rally holding a sign
Whilst an amendment to lower the voting age to 16 was rejected in Parliament, it has revived the long-standing debate amongst media over the desirability of lowering the voting age. Three questions need to be answered before: 1) whether it is worthwhile to make such a change; 2) whether the political choices of teenage voters should be valued; 3) whether lowering the voting age can achieve the intended effect of enabling teenage voters to play a greater part in shaping British politics.
To begin with, the answer to the first question is a resounding ‘yes”. At this age of political fragmentation, the voting age has provided a new space for gerrymandering. It seems that with the exception of the Conservative Party, all the opposition parties in Parliament welcome the idea of lowering the voting age to 16, which will admit one and a half million teenagers into the electorate. The impact of extending the franchise to those teenagers cannot be underestimated. The research conducted by the Office of National Statistics shows that there are 88 constituencies where the number of 16 and 17-year-olds outnumber the winning margin, amongst which 34 are held by Conservative MPs. However, according to BBC Political Research Unit, 16 and 17-year-olds are likely to replicate the political leanings of the 18 to 24-year-olds who are more likely to support opposition parties than the Conservatives. Notwithstanding no guarantee over the voter turnout, it does indicate a potential for change in the outcome of the seats should younger teenagers be allowed to vote. Moreover, lowering the voting age could have had considerable impact on the EU referendum, given the survey results from the Student Room that 82% of 16 and 17-year-olds preferred remaining in the EU.
At this age of political fragmentation, the voting age has provided a new space for gerrymandering
In view of the potentially substantial effect the younger voters will have on the British political landscape, the second question to ask is whether the political choices made by the 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds should be allowed to exert such a substantial impact on British politics. A common criticism against lowering the voting age is that those under 18 do not have sufficient maturity and responsibility to vote in elections so that their voting decisions should be valued. Yet, this argument does not stand up to closer scrutiny. In many areas of the law, a teenager aged 16 is regarded as capable of taking up responsibility. For example, the age of consent in criminal law is 16 in the UK, which assumes that a teenager aged 16 is able to make free and informed choices as to engage in sexual activities. The age of criminality in the UK is even lower – 10 years old in England and Wales and 12 years old in Scotland. Outside the bounds of criminal law, a teenager aged 16 is eligible to pay taxes. As such, it is hard to justify why the maturity of a 16-year-old is enough to justify criminal and tax responsibility but not a right to have a say in the direction of the country. Besides, it is untenable to argue that 16-year-olds are incapable of forming sensible political opinions merely because they are still receiving educational training. With the prevalence of higher education, a significant proportion of young voters in the current electorate are full-time students as well.
In fact, lowering the voting age is not without precedent in the UK and there has never been any evidence indicating a correlation between lowering the voting age and erratic voting outcomes. The 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds were allowed to vote in the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum and they can now vote in local and Scottish Parliament elections. It is also worth noting that the Conservatives allowed even the 15-year-olds to vote in their party leadership elections in July 2019. In effect, this meant that young Conservatives as young as 15-year-old were trusted to be mature enough to make informed choices as to who would become the Prime Minister. In this light, it would be utterly illogical and hypocritical to deny all 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds having a say in the general election on the ground that they are not mature enough. Considering the real possibility that the choice of the next Prime Minister would be determined in the ruling party’s leadership contests, there ought to be a consistent rule on the voting age across all political elections, let it be internal party contests or the general election.
Moving on to the final question, there have been major concerns over the turnout rate amongst young voters. Low turnout rate would defeat the very purpose of lowering the voting age, which is to enable young voters to play a greater part in shaping British politics. This concern can be partially mitigated by the “youthquake” in the most recent 2017 UK general election where young people turned out to vote in greater numbers than at any other point for 25 years. Moreover, lowering the voting age may improve participation in politics, since the way people come into contact with politics in their formative years is crucially important in dictating their level of political engagement in the years to come.
Considering the real possibility that the choice of the next Prime Minister would be determined in the ruling party’s leadership contests, there ought to be a consistent rule on the voting age across all political elections, let it be internal party contests or the general election.
Overall, there is a good case for lowering the voting age in principle but whether or not the voting age will be lowered is ultimately a political question. Hopefully, politicians will be able to set aside their political incentives and give the young people of this country what they deserve.