Should 16-year-olds vote?

Muhammad Siddique Ali Pirzada
Friday, Jun 21, 2024

The debate over whether 16-year-olds should have the right to vote has sparked a lively discourse across Britain. Many Britons remain sceptical about Labour’s proposal, fearing it could dilute the integrity of the voting process.

However, a glance at countries like Scotland, Brazil, and Austria, where 16-year-olds already cast ballots, reveals a different story. These nations are pioneering a path that challenges our doubts. By lowering the voting age, they are not just making a decision for today but investing in tomorrow’s electorate. Imagine teenagers equipped with the power to shape their future early on – learning firsthand the value of civic duty and the impact of their choices.

Contrary to popular belief, empowering younger voices could well be the spark needed to ignite a more politically engaged generation. It is about nurturing a habit of participation from an early age, forging citizens who are not just passive spectators but active contributors in their communities. As Britain weighs this pivotal decision, it is not just about numbers on a ballot but the potential to cultivate a more vibrant democracy – one where every voice, regardless of age, plays a meaningful role in shaping the nation’s course.

Labour leader Keir Starmer has endorsed the reduction of the legal voting age from 18 to 16, indicating a potential inclusion of this policy in the party’s manifesto. The Labour Party had been deliberating on this matter for more than a year, considering its implementation in Scotland and Wales for local and devolved parliamentary elections. Now, Starmer has advocated for extending voting rights to individuals who are capable of working and contributing taxes.

Recent polling data indicates strong opposition, with many viewing the proposal to lower the voting age as self-serving rather than beneficial to the nation. The perception is that it is a strategic move to boost Labour’s electoral influence by engaging younger voters, akin to Tony Blair’s higher education reforms that cultivated a supportive graduate base. This debate highlights how policy decisions intersect with perceptions and political strategies, shaping future electoral landscapes.

In January 2024, the Conservative Party came under fire for alleged gerrymandering following their decision to scrap the 15-year overseas residency requirement for British expatriates to vote in UK elections. This change is expected to impact up to three million potential voters, potentially doubling the number of voters aged 16-18.

Critics argue this adjustment will disproportionately benefit older expatriates, who often lean towards the Conservatives and reside abroad after retirement. Labour has criticized the move, alleging it could lead to increased influence from wealthy donors with minimal UK residency. Despite Labour’s political calculations, arguments supporting the policy change consistently outweigh those against it.

In 2018, the establishment of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Votes at 16 represented a milestone in UK political discourse. The group’s subsequent report in 2019, informed by contributions from MPs, research bodies, and academics, highlighted a consensus among stakeholders. It effectively refuted common misconceptions that typically oppose lowering the voting age, marking a significant shift in the debate.

One prevalent misconception countered by the report is the belief that young individuals lack the political maturity to make informed decisions. The report challenged this view by questioning the arbitrary nature of the 18-year-old threshold for adulthood. It argued that young people already undertake significant responsibilities and enjoy corresponding rights before this age, such as leaving education, entering consensual relationships, or joining the military.

Moreover, the report debunked another misconception that young people are apathetic towards politics. It presented evidence showing that many young individuals are actively engaged in political issues, thus refuting claims of widespread disinterest among this demographic.

Instances abound of young individuals actively engaging with political processes that shape their lives. In the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, 16- and 17-year-olds showed a remarkable 75 per cent turnout, 21 percentage points higher than 18–24-year-olds. A staggering 97 per cent expressed a commitment to future political participation. Their exclusion from the EU referendum highlights a broader issue: while Scotland and Wales include 16–18-year-olds in voting, England and Northern Ireland do not, creating a disparity in democratic rights across the UK, deepening political inequality.

Concerns about lowering the voting age often include assumptions that young people hold distinct preferences divergent from the general population. However, empirical evidence challenges this view. In the Scottish referendum, for example, despite expectations, over 54 per cent of 16–29-year-olds voted against independence, aligning more with older voters than their peers.

Similarly, in the 2022 Brazilian presidential election, preferences among voters aged 16-24 mirrored those of other age groups. Austria’s experience, where 16-year-olds can vote in national elections, shows little divergence in political preferences between youth and the broader electorate, with youth turnout notably strong.

The case for lowering the voting age is not about speculating on the preferences or behaviours of young individuals – criteria that should not determine voting rights. Instead, it emphasizes the formative impact of early adulthood on democratic values. Between ages 16 and 18, individuals experience significant developmental transitions, shaping their understanding of society and global issues. Engaging them in political concepts and democratic processes during this critical period is crucial for fostering civic participation and upholding democratic principles in any nation.

Lowering the voting age is not just about establishing long-term patterns of political engagement, but also about optimizing participation in one’s first election. Currently, gaining the vote at 18 means experiencing the first general election between ages 18 and 23. Lowering the age to 16 shifts this critical first voting experience earlier, between ages 16 and 21.

Younger individuals in this age bracket are often still living with parents and focused on education, environments that facilitate guidance on the political system, local candidates, and the voting process – areas where first-time voters naturally lack familiarity.

Conversely, those aged 18 to 23 are typically more independent, possibly residing away from home and less connected to local issues or candidates. Lowering the voting age would enable young people to engage in their inaugural vote at a time when they are more likely to benefit from heightened support and familiarity, potentially increasing overall participation and democratic engagement.

Despite clear evidence from countries like Brazil and Austria showing the benefits of lowering the voting age, it is surprising that the British still hesitate on this idea. If the Labour Party pushes forward with its proposals to expand the franchise, it has an opportunity to engage Britons in a thorough exploration of the issue.

The diverse arguments overwhelmingly advocate for adopting this measure, pointing out its potential advantages. By actively participating in this discourse, Labour could sway public opinion by highlighting the inherent merits of this policy change, potentially paving the way for broader acceptance across the UK.

The writer is a law student.