News and Comment

At what age should we get the vote?

Thursday 8 November 2012

There has, of late, been a spate of nations campaigning for expanded franchises that would give 16 year olds the right to vote. Last week Argentina approved a law to lower its voting age from 18 to 16, which in turn followed an announcement last month that Westminster was removing its challenge to allowing 16 year olds to participate in the Scottish Independence referendum in 2014. Then, on Tuesday, politicians from two separate parties in Stormont tabled a motion to give Northern Irish 16 year olds the vote, a move that may force the House of Commons to debate whether similar rule changes should come into force for future UK General Elections.

According to Sinn Féin MLA Megan Fearon, “Lowering the age to sixteen would be an important step in allowing more people to participate in the democratic process”. Similarly, the Scottish Youth Parliament, a democratically elected charity representing young Scottish people, argues that they’ve “seen many capable, confident and well-informed 16 and 17 year olds who have a real interest in politics, but are unable to play their full part as citizens by exercising their democratic rights on election day”. As far away as Buenos Aires the message is the same: “It is a very important initiative because it expands the frontier of rights” Agustin Rossi, an Argentine politician told the BBC.

Of course, there are those who see the issue differently, either arguing that young people are not mature or responsible enough for the vote, or interpreting these changes as self-serving realpolitik designed to support nationalists’ separatist agendas, or galvanise the support base of beleaguered parties. But cynical or otherwise, given the worldwide momentum for such a radical extension of voting rights, the issue deserves to be considered seriously.

At OPM, we’ve been working with a number of charities and youth programmes, which, among other things, aim to support young people as they make the transition into adulthood. One such initiative, the National Citizen Service (NCS), encourages young people to see that they have valuable roles to play in their communities and the capacity to make meaningful contributions.

While the Scottish Youth Parliament, SNP, Sinn Féin and others argue young people are mature enough and ready for the responsibility of voting, the existence of schemes like NCS and others seem to suggest that young people are still making that transitional journey at the ages of 16 and 17. This year, the government commissioned 30,000 NCS places, “to develop the skills and potential of teenagers” and so far 85% of participants have said the scheme enabled them to learn something new about themselves.

A fundamental tenet of the NCS programme is transitioning young people to adulthood; a transition which our research has shown young people are embracing. Yet in British society at least, the right to vote has been long since been an established sign that this transition is already complete. There are, without doubt, 16 year-olds for whom the maturity and responsibility associated with voting would not be an issue, just as there are also adults for whom it is. But any arbitrary age has its flaws and the case for change always has to be stronger than that for the status quo.

That’s not to say things won’t, or indeed shouldn’t, change. The current voting age of 18 was only set in 1969, before that it was 21 and going back further our society was considerably less and less democratic, restricting the voting rights of women and the working class. As recently as 2006 only those aged 21 and over were allowed to stand for public office in this country. Of course this ever downward, ever more inclusive trend cannot be inexorable, but the numerous historical and indeed international precedents would suggest that a decision on this issue may be looming on the horizon. Perhaps, given the fundamental importance of the change, it will be one made by the people via referendum? Though that too would beg an additional question, not too dissimilar to the one currently being debated: who gets to vote?