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Published on August 21st, 2013 | by Eve Stanger
Image © Jppi 2009, Morguefile


Should 16-17 year olds get the vote?

At 16 years old the world is your oyster. Suddenly you’re free to get married, pay tax, have sex or gamble your EMA away in the national lottery. But it’s another two years down the line until you’re deemed mature enough to vote. Labour’s next manifesto is looking to change this.

The Conservatives have argued that keeping the voting age at 18 is necessary as this matches the voting age of most western democracies, here it is argued that it is important to harmonise voting ages and ensure that voting turnout does not decrease. This is believed by many to be a major risk alongside questions about the maturity of 16 year olds. Are they in a position to make an educated decision? When addressing the appropriateness of the voting age it is necessary to consider it alongside other minimum ages, should people who are deemed mature enough to get married be therefore allowed to vote? Ultimately, it is impossible to really measure maturity as every individual is different – though some 16 years are more mature and capable than other 19 year olds this does not mean that all 16 year olds should necessarily be eligible to vote. But with huge numbers 16 year olds seeking independence and their own job after leaving school, perhaps it is time that the voting age was addressed.

The Liberal Democrats, as well as Labour figures such as David Miliband, have long supported the move to lower the voting age. When the issue was addressed in 2004 it was decided that a move did not have the support and was not appropriate. However it was declared that the issue should be addressed again within the next few years and that the candidacy age should be lowered to 18.This reflected a move to allow politically minded young people to be a part of politics from a younger age but ultimately this move is incomplete unless the voting age is changed to 16.

The Shadow Justice Secretary has declared that lowering the voting age is a move that Labour are hoping to introduce, in an attempt to reinvigorate politics and involve young people at an earlier stage. He and Lord Adonis argue that teengers would be in a position to make educated votes though encouraging a political education in the education system and worries about low turn outs could be avoided by introducing secondary schools as polling stations. Adonis argues that there is a need to help young people engage as citizens and to appreciate the democratic system. With such a huge debate surrounding the issue it is likely that 16-17 year olds will have a greater appreciation of the ability to vote and to therefore be keen to make an informed decision – whereas now there is sense that there is an alienation of young people in politics and shunning young people from the franchise only seems to confirm this. Even without knowing it, most 16 year olds are somewhat opinionated about politics and the actions of the government and a lower voting age could allow these opinions to be channelled into political votes to allow 16 year olds to have a voice in the course of British Politics.

Why is a move to allow 16 year olds to vote deemed so radical? Last year it was announced that 16 would be the minimum age for voting in the referendum for Scottish Independence and The Cooperative’s Vote at 16 campaign has thousands of signatures behind it, arguing that the law needs to change for reasons of engagement, empowerment and inspiration. They argue that as well as considering the comparison to rights that 16 year old do have there is need to consider that democracy and voting is not an unfamiliar concept to young people. The instalment of citizenship education in schools and the familiarity of voting in school council elections are believed to prepare young people for voting in general elections.

But we continually return to the question of maturity. With so much at stake can we risk jeopardising elections to people who will not take them seriously or who will simply give their parents another vote? Proponents argue that such individuals would simply not vote at all but at least the option was given which reflects a better relationship with young people and the opportunity to give those who want to express their opinion a voice. But in a situation where majority matters, is this a gamble we can take? Yes, some 16 year olds could make an educated vote but it is impossible to ensure that the votes of other 16-17 year olds are not misused. Research suggests that the area of the brain related to judgement does not fully develop till at least 19 which questions the ability of young people to  vote. It would not be possible to determine each individual’s ability to vote before deciding if they should be allowed to do so, so ultimately deciding this by age is the only option despite its obvious flaws.

What determines ability to vote? Maturity. Experience. Independence. These are qualities that it is difficult to quantify and thus how can we ever reach a solid conclusion about what is the best age to vote? It is unlikely that a 16 year old would have experience maturity comparable to an 18 or 21 year old as even those that are moving towards independence would be looking at limited experience. Though the argument in favour of lowering the voting age is strong on paper, there is a need to consider it through asking yourself could you have voted at 16? Honesty, for me, it would simply have given my parents an extra vote as I lacked decisiveness and the concept of the bigger picture.

The other side of this issue is the actions and policies that governments would take to appeal to the younger voters. How would parties attempt to win over the Facebook generation? Would these policies represent genuine attempts to cater for the needs of the young or tactical methods to win elections? Many argue that the anger from young people concerning the changes to university fees reflects an inability to look beyond the personal and make a decision for the good of the country. The Shadow Secretary’s proposals have ultimately relit the debate surrounding elections, to the point that there have even be calls to change the voting age back 21. Here it is argued that there is a huge maturity difference between 18 and 21 year olds. This represents an argument radically different to Labour’s proposals.

Regardless of a stance on voting age, it is clear that better understanding and involvement in politics is necessary for young people as ultimately this is a key determinant in ability to vote. Though there are citizenship classes in school these are, from my experience, largely ineffective and schools do not tend to put the necessary amount of time and quality into them. It is clear that large numbers of 16 year olds would not be in a position to make an educated vote, but this better reflects the failure to engage young people with politics rather than a fundamental problem with changing the voting age itself.

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About the Author

Eve Stanger

Eve is a current student at the University of Warwick studying History and Politics. Interests include British Politics, development Politics and globalisation. Next year Eve plans to focus her degree on development politics as well as the history of Britain from 1600. Greatest achievement to date is receiving a UBS Award for Outstanding Students... or surviving travelling America alone. Hobbies include writing blogs, watching Hot Fuzz on repeat and travelling - as far away from East London as possible.

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