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Should we lower the voting age to 16?


Sixteen year olds in the UK can't drink, drive, get a tattoo or watch an R-rated film. Why should we give them voting rights? Sean Kippin, Managing Editor of Democratic Audit at LSE, sought a range of views on this subject.

Over the past decade, two independent commissions have rejected moves to lower the voting age to 16 in the United Kingdom. Has the public mood now swung in favour of the proposal following Scotland’s landmark decision to allow 16 and 17-year-olds the right to cast their vote in the independence referendum?

The Conservatives remain steadfastly opposed to any shift from the current legal voting age, arguing that 18 is viewed globally as the accepted age when a person moves from being a child to an adult. Allowing someone younger than that to make a serious decision about the future of their country is reckless, detractors claim.

On the pro side, supporters say that lowering the voting age is the most effective way not only to empower youth, who have been side lined by the major parties, but also to encourage greater political engagement among young people.

The Democratic Audit| at LSE has recently summarised the views in an edited collection of blog posts featured on their website.

Contributors include academics and politicians from both camps who - while disagreeing on the fundamental question about a minimum voting age – unanimously agree that British political culture needs urgent reform to address the concerns and aspirations of young people.  

Blog contributor Sarah Champion, Labour Member for Rotherham, makes the point that 16-year-olds can work, have sex, join a trade union, change their name by deed poll, pay income tax and national insurance contributions, yet are not allowed to have a say in how their tax is spent.

Along with other supporters she defends the rights of 16-year-olds to vote on the basis they can legally marry and join the army – although both are only possible with parental permission. 

Ms Champion says the system as it stands is hypocritical and contradictory, treating 16 and 17-year-olds as adults on one level but giving them the democratic rights of a child.

Advocates of lowering the voting age argue that the current political system alienates young people because the average age of an MP is 50, the majority come from Russell Group universities and less than a quarter of politicians are women.

And, finally, supporters cite the experience of countries like Argentina, Brazil, Austria, Ecuador and Nicaragua, where they argue that giving 16-year-olds voting rights has worked reasonably well.

On the anti-side, Andrew Russell, Professor of Politics at the University of Manchester, says there is widespread opposition among adults to the proposal and not much enthusiasm from young people themselves for the idea. He also points out that, aside from sexual consent laws being relaxed, in many other respects, age thresholds have actually been increased in recent years to protect children.

The minimum age at which one can legally buy tobacco, fireworks, have a tattoo, or visit a tanning booth has been raised to 18 in recent years, which makes it hard to argue that 18 is not the recognised age of adulthood, he writes in his blog post.

Only those aged 18 and over can legally sign a tenancy agreement and local authorities, by law, must provide shelter for homeless youth under 18 years of age. He poses the question about whether these protective rights would be removed if the voting age was lowered to 16.

Professor Russell also argues that 92 per cent of 16-year-olds are still at school and of those who do work, only 9 per cent actually have to pay income tax.

In their blog post, Andy Mycock and Jonathan Tonge reason that while there are some strong arguments for lowering the voting age in an ageing society, it is not a panacea to issues of youth engagement. Declining turnout is a symptom of political disengagement rather than the cause.

The full paper can be found at: http://www.democraticaudit.com/?p=6522|

Useful notes

Democratic Audit is hosted within the Department of Government| at LSE. It is one of Britain’s leading NGOs tracking the health of democracy, human rights and freedom in an evidence-based way. Over more than two decades the Democratic Audit has built a reputation for independent, high quality and committed research into the evolution of democratic practices, governance accountability and civil and human rights in the UK.