Votes at Xteen

I haven’t bothered reading very much about the Power Inquiry because I’ve heard from some that it’s pretty much predictable stuff (“a bit like a reformers greatest hits album”) and from others that it’s not actually that good. Besideswhich, there have been several reports that have made obvious common sense suggestions for electoral reform which have all been ignored by Labour, so there’s no reason to believe why this new one should be any reason to get optimistic.

But I was interested by this post on Jawbox about the votes at 16 idea. Ben Phillips is, if I remember correctly, not yet old enough to vote (please correct me if this is wrong) and it is intriguing that he is not in favour of lowering the voting age.

Before I hit 18 I was in favour of votes at 16, but now I’m not so sure. (And the steady journey to becoming an old Tory codger continues apace.) Of course, it all looks very different when you’re on the other side of the barrier. I know little about it, although I guess fewer men than women were in favour of women’s suffrage, and so on.

Ben is worried that sixteen year olds are more likely to vote BNP or just vote for who their parents tell them to because they’re more impressionable. It’s a good point, although I would have thought that people will always tend to vote the way their parents did, often because of shared heritage, socioeconomic reasons and so on. I probably began disagreeing with my parents at the age of about 14, and today at 19 I probably spend more time disagreeing than agreeing with him. But we’re all different. It’s difficult to believe, though, that people will turn 18 and all of a sudden at the click of your fingers they will no longer vote BNP or just blindly follow their parents.

By the same token, though, there is no reason why that should be the case at 16 either. I also agree with Ben that if a youngster is going to be interested in current affairs and politics, he’s going to be interested anyway, regardless of whether they get to vote at 16, 18, 21 or 6.

18-year-olds are pretty impressionable as well though. There are many who think that the voting age should be set at 21, and at times it’s easy to see why. At university it is difficult to encounter anybody who isn’t busy trying to have the most trendy and right-on political views. Indeed, Edinburgh students have just voted in that enormous bore Mark “Who? (Green list MSP)” Ballard as rector, presumably because he’s a Green, and that’s trendy and right-on.

Does this make their opinions worthless though? Of course it doesn’t. So where should the age limit be set? I really don’t know. I would probably still say 16. But I think the age itself isn’t so important. Growing up, it’s difficult to know when you become an adult. At 16 you can get married (in Scotland at least), are expected to be responsible enough to raise a child, make the decision to smoke yourself to death, and be sent off to fight a war by a government that you haven’t voted for. At 17 you’re let loose on the roads. At 18 you can vote, but there are still many rights yet to be granted.

Moreover, sixteen-year-olds are unique because they have direct experience of one of politics’ greatest hot potatoes, education. By that age, people take their education pretty seriously, so it’s fair to say that they would vote sensibly on the issue according to what they perceive to be their best interests. These are the people that are really affected by education policies, so why are they given the right to vote as soon as they leave school?

That’s why I think 16 is probably right on balance. But who am I to say that the age limits for marrying, smoking, etc, shouldn’t be raised to 18? I’m not all that fussed about it any more — but then it’s easy to say that standing on this side of the barrier.


  1. Yes, I’ll be 17 in a few months. I suspect that actually what’s forming my opinion on this is my frequently meeting large numbers of students very keen on immediately privatising the whole of the NHS, but I might be wrong.

    At 6th form college, the situation looks brighter than I might have indicated in the post, but only marginally. Certainly, in the last year of secondary school the minority who had political stances were largely right-wing in an pretty unpleasant way. The rest genuinely weren’t interested. I think what you say about views on education is true, but just as likely to be true at 18 as at 16.

    I guess we just have more important stuff to do, like wandering around drab canteens like zombies, sipping weak coffee and fretting about that English Lit coursework that should have got beyond the first paragraph by now. Speaking of which…

  2. I don’t know. It really depends on the kid, doesn’t it?

    I couldn’t trust some students to vote. Did you see the newsnight series of reports about second years in Leeds in the run up to the election? Most of them either didn’t register at all, or couldn’t be bothered to register in the local area, so ordered postal votes from home. Which, of course, never arrived. Out of six people interviewed, only one or two voted. Now, most of my friends voted, but they did political/social science degrees or were involved in student journalism and are more aware of politics than most. I would be interesting to see how many others at the university would have bothered.

  3. The idea of extending the franchise to include 16 year olds was originally a Lib Dem idea… but a gimmick, nevertheless. The ‘crisis’ in our democracy won’t be solved but widening the franchise in this way, which is the reason why it’s being talked about. The problem is enthusing those that already have the vote – not those that don’t at this moment. My guess is that 16 and 17 year-olds would follow the trend and vote in smaller numbers than 18-24 year olds.

    Personally, though, I think that voting should remain at 18 and as something the defines adulthood: tax on earnings should also start at that point, bringing into play the principle of tax and representation.

  4. I’m personally in favour of a common citizenship age; if you can marry, leave school, pay tax and join the army, why not vote?

    If you can’t vote, then raise the age for all the above to 18.

    The other argument, that of engagement and the studies show that voters just turned 18 at one general election are much more likely to vote than those just below 18 when the next one comes around makes me think it’s a good idea.

    Opinion hasn’t changed in the last 15 years; I’m 31 now, I was 17 and 3/4 in 1992, that may also bias me a little.