The upsurge in youth activism in recent years has led to more young people getting involved in making change happen, in the best ways that are accessible to them. This can take many forms, from social media campaigns to involving themselves in local politics or even protest. There are a myriad of examples of this with the Votes at 16 campaign being only one, our aim being to give young people the right to vote in all national elections in the UK.
To fully encapsulate the importance of our campaign, let us first familiarise ourselves with the idea of democracy through the lens of its political definitions. Democracy is the system of government in which laws, leadership and other undertakings are either directly or indirectly chosen by the people. Direct democracy is when people are involved in making decisions like voting for policies, an example of this being the Scottish independence referendum and the Brexit referendum. Representative democracy is when the people choose someone to take on the responsibility of making decisions on the voters behalf.
A historical milestone largely ignored and un-celebrated in UK political history is the Representation of the People Act 1969, which saw the UK become the first country in Western Europe to lower the voting age to 18. This was a bold step towards what would become the global norm, with many other countries following in suit. The political scientists Thomas Loughran, Andrew Mycock, and Jonathan Tonge, in their article for the LSE British Politics and Policy blog, acknowledge that “most opponents of votes at 16 tend to frame the issue as a binary debate regarding where ‘adulthood’ should begin, ignoring the more nuanced views”. At the ages of 16 and 17 we are allowed to get full time jobs, move out, join the army, give sexual consent and so on, but we are not allowed to vote. I believe the shift in responsibility young people will experience if given the right to vote will only help to encourage their transition into adulthood.
After the Representation of the People Act was implemented, 65% of 18-24 year-olds voted. As time went on, 18-24 year-olds were not as consistent with voting as their older counterparts, with voter turnout in this age bracket declining to its lowest level in 2001, when only 23% voted. Some attribute this to a neglect by officials to appeal to younger voters, as well as the lack of political education in schools.
Let me address the more direct arguments in opposition to lowering the voting age. One of the most popular and persistent points against it is that young people are too immature and reckless to be given the heavy responsibility of voting, and they are unlikely to vote. This idea that young people are careless and would waste their vote has no substance to it. In a joint study, researchers at the University of Sheffield and University of Edinburgh found that young people who began to vote at 16 after the 2014 Scottish independence referendum were not only more likely to vote but were more likely to continue to vote as they grew up. It found that these younger voters had a much higher rate of turnout than 18-24 year-old voters.
Another argument is that young people’s views may not be fully developed and they may find themselves regretting certain views they held at that age further down the line. However this is not a valid argument. No matter how old or young a person is, we all work the same in that we change. As humans we are always developing; as time moves on so might our values. The idea that young people should not be given the right to vote on this basis is hypocritical and ignores the complexities of being human. Many adults go through a process where their own views change and may regret past voting habits, either because of the consequences or because experiences have given them a new perspective. The same goes for young people.
It is also important to note that different demographics may be affected differently by the consequences of elections and their outcomes. Older voters may regularly vote in their own interests, ignoring the effects their vote may have on the younger generation. So giving young people their voice and their chance to pursue their own political priorities as they see fit is only a rational response.
When researching this piece, I read a comment on a TedTalk video about lowering the voting age. It exemplified another common, yet flawed, arguments against votes at 16: “A lot of [young people] want to buy into ideas without thinking of the consequences these policies and laws they support might cause…Majority of the time they don’t wanna think critically about complex things like the economy and governmental systems”. A valid argument against this is that this logic can apply to almost any age demographic – from Gen Z to Baby Boomers. A significant portion of people have little to no understanding of the people and policies they may be voting on, and this is down to a multitude of reasons. For example, due to limited political education, voters might make their voting decisions based not on the substance of what policies they prefer or the wider platform of a political party, but rumour, misinformation, or simply the personality of the politician.
Indeed, this is something that I have recognised in a lot of people who are opposed to our Votes at 16 campaign. They look at the arguments from the wrong angle. By which I mean that their arguments are often centred around the perception that young people are less likely to be informed enough to grasp the consequences of their vote. But this is an issue seen among all age groups, and highlights a wider issue which is insufficient political education across society. That is exactly something that our campaign, including the specific call for votes at 16, is seeking to tackle. The irony is that, time and again, this evidence in favour of votes at 16 and greater political engagement and education, is used as an argument against young people’s voting rights.