The Right to Vote at 16

A key issue is well expressed in the following interchange.

“Token teenager” invited to ask a question of a panel of middle aged politicos/ business people at an international conference on the climate emergency: 

‘What age will you be in 2050?’ 

Embarrassed silence from the “grownups”….

The point is obvious. Young people in the past have been assured of a future.  Today’s young people see that future disappearing down the plug hole of their elders’  disregard for the fragile ecosystem which supports life on earth. And they have no voice in the coercive systems those same elders have built to perpetuate this  destruction, while retaining their own power. 

Electoral reform must include lowering the voting age in England, and Northern  Ireland, to 16, as it already is for national and local elections in Scotland and Wales. 

Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

The future belongs to the young, but they do not yet possess it. Especially it is young people who in the longer term will have been worst affected by the Coronovirus pandemic – school and university closures, exams on, then off, then on…. Careers and work all but vanishing, the climate emergency on their near horizon, but still those new and high-skilled jobs which should be part of a Green New Deal remain a tantalizing chimera. 

In Britain, the movement to lower the voting age has been gathering momentum. After all, you can marry and pay taxes at 16. In Scotland the 2014 independence referendum was a watershed. More than 100,000 16-17 year olds registered to vote, out of an electorate of 3.6m. All but one of the major political UK parties are in favour and have had votes at 16 in their manifestos in recent years. The Conservatives are against, unsurprisingly, since nearly half of Tory voters are 65 or older. Over half of all Labour voters in the 2019 general election were under 25. And it is women who are by far the most progressive voters – 65% of young women voted Labour against 46% of young men. 

This May, 2021, 16 year olds in Wales will vote for the first time for their Senedd representatives, and their local councillors; a major expansion of the franchise. Around 65,000 16/17s are expected to benefit. Legally resident foreign nationals will also be able to vote. Local councils will be able to change from first past the  post voting to PR.

These moves are a victory for campaigners across Wales, such as the Electoral Reform Society Cymru and a coalition of youth and civil society  campaigners, plus round table workshops with the Children’s Commissioner for Wales and her young representatives. In Senedd consultations there were large majorities for such changes. Supporters saw lowering the voting age as a welcome and natural extension of recognising young people’s rights, and as increasing participation of young people in the democratic process and decision-making in matters that affect them.  

Westminster now looks increasingly isolated for barring the UK’s nearly 1.5m 16 and  17 year olds from electing their MP, even though concern about children’s education, welfare and rights, has been reflected in parliamentary Acts since the 1870 Education Act. 

It’s a constitutional injustice that 16 and 17 year olds in England continue to be denied the vote. Extending the franchise for Westminster elections is now a question of  ‘when’, not ‘if’.  

The voice of young people is needed immediately in local and general elections, especially the next one in 2024, since the outcome of that election will be critical in  refocusing democracy and in setting the parameters of the UK’s response to the  climate emergency. 

Further Background

Austria became the first EU country to lower the voting age to 16 (in 2007), closely followed by Malta. Sixteen year olds can also vote in Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador, Guernsey, Isle of Man, Jersey, and Nicaragua.  

For some countries the lack of a ‘youth voice’ is particularly tragic. The population of  Algeria, for example, is predominantly under 30. The old and rich minority have made their wealth from the country’s oil reserves. But for the young the future lies in solar energy. 

Caroline Roaf and Sue Ledwith are co-founders of Oxford Democracy Cafe

4 thoughts on “The Right to Vote at 16

  1. This article justifies its proposal on two grounds:
    1) That 16- and 17-year olds have more of a stake in the future than older people, and thus should have an influence on it too
    2) That 16- and 17-year olds are more likely to support the policies we support

    Ground (2) smacks of gerrymandering: I do not believe that that proposals to change the franchise purely in the hope the newly-enfranchised would support a particular set of views is legitimate. (It’s also unlikely to win over holders of other views!)

    Ground (1) would also apply with more force to 14- and 15-year olds, and indeed to babes in arms. It’s also not the case that older people are not concerned with events past their deaths: I have granddaughters and care aboutthe world we will bequeath them.

    The question is: at what age, in general, do young people have the capacity to make such decisions? I doubt there is an objective test for that quality, but I do believe it’s some time before the age of 18.

  2. I remember when I was 16. I was very ignorant, but had strong opinions based on not very much. I suspect that if it had been today, I could easily have been swept up in some extremist organisation.
    So, although a 16 yo today may be progressive, we should be careful about giving her the vote willy nilly. The same thing goes for 15 yo, for 17 yo … for 21 yo? Wouldn’t it be better if, somehow, eligibility to vote depended not on an arbitrary age but upon some other qualifying factor?
    Maybe there should even be a mini-exam before a vote could be accepted!?!!

  3. The proposal to test eligibility to vote is interesting and maybe ‘woke’/patronising. Being swept up in extremism is not confined to, or even prevalent among young people – as we see in many countries including the UK. Rather, let’s ensure that citizenship education starts with the young and continues throughout life. There are some interesting models, eg the Danish practice of democratic practice in schools and communities plus a summer conference for all political parties. I too have granddaughters, and grandsons who I want to see able to vote in a fair system where every vote counts.

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