Why the voting age should be lowered to 16

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December 9, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith

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Ed Miliband announced today that the Labour Party planned to lower the voting age to 16 should they enter Government next May. This change, would be in place for 2016, in time, Miliband hopes, for 16 year olds to vote in the Scottish Assembly election. It will not be controversial in Scotland, where 16 and 17 year olds were allowed to vote in the recent independence referendum. But in the rest of the UK the argument is still to be made for the change. I want to make it now.

16 year olds should be able to vote because they can be taxed, join the army and get married among other rights. The phrase ‘no taxation without representation’ must apply here, and, put simply, because they don’t vote, 16 year olds receive less representation from our political system.

When you are 16, politics is something done TO you, rather than something you can participate in. These young men and women ARE interested in politics, and are being educated in politics through their citizenship and PSHE (Personal, Social and Health Education) lessons. But those lessons stop at 16. So, even though it is now compulsory for pupils to remain in education until 18, they will not have access to the political education they get up to 16 in those last two years. This education is the key. If, at the end of their time in school, every pupil will be eligible to vote, then an investment in political education will be worthwhile, to make sure they are informed enough to make the most of it.

Furthermore, as Miliband rightly points out, there would be a chance, during that Year 11 in which they take GCSEs, for ALL pupils to be registered as a year group to be able to vote. This is important, as it used to be the case that the head of household could register you to vote, but that has changed to individual registrations, which at the moment are dropping. Imagine how galvanised registration will be if there is a chance to vote at 16. It is why I believe that it is more likely that a pupil will take the chance to vote for the first time at 16 than they would at 18.

Make no mistake, one of the key influences on the likelihood of voting at an election is ‘habit’. That is, people get into the habit of voting, and they get into the habit of not voting too. If they are more likely to vote at 16 than at 18, which I believe they are, then they will get into the right habits.

I’ve already heard people poo-poo the idea because they remember what they were like at 16. Or they think about what they see as the slack-jawed youths in school uniforms on the trains and cannot believe they would take the responsibility to vote seriously. But I have spent the last 9 years around people of 16 and 17 and they are far more politically engaged and responsible than you can imagine. It is time to trust them.

Back in September, the 16 and 17 year olds of Scotland were trusted. Their experience of being part of the political system means that they are now politically engaged for the rest of their lives. Armando Ianucci, the political writer and comedian, commented that “what was thrilling was how energised that whole generation had become, how they asked all the most penetrating questions, how forensic was their analysis of what politicians had to say and how they challenged parents, brothers and sisters to do the same.”

The rest of the UK has a chance to energise the remainder of that generation. To not do so would be a missed opportunity. So let’s do it.

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8 thoughts on “Why the voting age should be lowered to 16

  1. Dalia says:

    But aren’t you ignoring the fact that younger people are less capable of truly considering the long term implications of the decisions they make? Wasnt that part of the reason why the Scottish referendum was so close; the 16/17 year olds were far more susceptible to the nationalist propaganda of Alex Sammond as they were happier to ignore the possibility of long term problems with independence.

    I agree that they often qualify in terms of knowledge but their tendency to only look for the short term benefits could be catastrophic. Don’t our politicians damage the country enough by constantly putting off longer projects in favour of less crucial ones that can be finished in one period of government? It worries me that this could get even worse if they know that a decent proportion of the electorate are naturally inclined to favour short term benefits.

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    • Well, that is a genuine concern of course. Polls released after the referendum on independence suggested that a higher proportion of 25 – 35 year olds voted “Yes” than 16 and 17 year olds, and we are not completely sure how many did vote Yes. You are making assumptions as well about why 16 and 17 year olds voted for independence and whether or not they were “happier to ignore short-term problems” OR valued the long-term benefits of independence. I wonder if many older people who voted AGAINST independence were thinking more about the short-term possible costs of it, particularly to them and the stability they crave and less about the long-term benefits? We don’t know. I am optimistic about what 16 and 17 year olds can do and optimistic about the ability of our education system to help them make informed choices.

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  2. roland says:

    You make some interesting points, but I feel that you are being a little disingenuous with some of your facts. You mention that 16 year olds can be taxed, join the army and get married and while all this is true, it’s also true that a 1 day old baby can be taxed, there is no change in tax law once you reach 16; you can join the army at 16, but you can’t go to the frontline until you are 18 and you can only get married under 18 with your parents’ consent.

    It would seem strange to me that we had a situation whereby the law says you are capable taking part in deciding the long term future of the country, but at the same says you are incapable of making decisions about you own body. If you are capable of weighing all the pros and cons of the various political ideologies, then you are capable of weighing the pros and cons of smoking or drinking.

    The fact is, there is an age, 18, at which we legally become adults. Now the choice of 18 as the age is somewhat arbitrary. We are all aware that this covers a whole range of maturities, from those who can barely function without their parents, or some other, help, to those who are capable of following and making coherent arguments. At some point we draw the line. I don’t think you can take the responsibility of voting out of the context of other activities we deem to be “adult”.

    You are making the argument for 16, but why not 15 or even 14? As I mentioned above, the choice is always going to arbitrary. Political engagement doesn’t just start when you are allowed to vote, it starts when you see things in the world that you want to change and if you feel that waiting two years to have that chance is enough stop you caring then, then maybe you aren’t ready to be making those decisions.

    That does not mean to say we shouldn’t lower the voting age, but it should be as part of a broader view on when we decide, from a legal point of view at least, when adulthood starts.

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    • Thanks for that Roland (I assume ‘Ribble’ is no more?). It’s a really important question you bring up, and yes you are right that at the moment the age for adulthood is 18. I thank you also for your use of disingenuous to describe my use of facts, I imagine you had other words in your head! My view on what you have said is that I have a lot of confidence that given the opportunity and responsibility 16 year olds can act in an adult manner, and the trust we put in them can be returned in a positive way. I may not have thought that before I became a teacher, but I do now. Scotland proved that to me. Which is why I think they should be able to vote.

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      • roland says:

        Hi Paul, I can still be ribble if you want! I found it odd that you used those particular examples of what you can when you are 16 when they are easy poke holes. You could have used the examples of the age of consent or the right to have more choice on form your education.

        It’s an interesting blog that you have, but I remember your views on Israel being a little more strident…

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  3. Charlotte S says:

    I agree that 16 and 17 year olds are more politically engaged than we think but it is becoming evident that these kids (who at this age are both impressionable and somewhat rebellious, irrespective of their intelligence level) are doing so because of people like Russell Brand who seem exciting and revolutionary but really are just idiots manipulating young people for their own self-gain..so we see a big risk of these teens choosing their vote for the wrong reasons, and surely no vote is better than the wrong one? Of course your suggestion of PSHE could help counter this, but I struggle to see how kids who are struggling to achieve As and Bs in their GCSEs are going to go on to sufficiently understand many political concepts and thus be able to make not just an informed but a suitable decision in voting. Being active and informed does not = being intelligent and wise. Again, surely no vote = better than the wrong one. The government is looked to to protect the vulnerable and in this case the highly impressionable 16 to 17 year olds could be considered the vulnerable here? I struggle to see how a government who cannot provide sufficient education to get most kids getting As and above in basic level exams is going to provide political education that is effective in helping kids make the RIGHT decision. That also leads to another point – it is the GOVERNMENT who create the national curriculum. Do we really want a current government creating the basis of the curriculum intended to help ( or as we may see, manipulate and sway) young people in their next vote?

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    • You make a lot of good points that certainly would need to be addressed. I am a lot more optimistic as to what can be achieved with young people than you are, which is the reason for our different views on this. The answer to your last point is that an independent commission would need to be set up to create an education programme that is balanced and fair as it can be to help make sure young people are knowledgeable enough to have a good go at voting sensibly.

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  4. Jobe says:

    I agree, sixteen year olds should be given the vote, whether this is due to my age I don’t know. But I know there are many 16 year olds who know enough about the political system and each parties policies to make a decision based on their own views.

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