Scotland’s referendum on whether to stay in the United Kingdom or split and leave the rest of us at the mercy of ceaseless Tory governments will allow 16 year olds the vote, sparking the debate about whether 16 year olds should be allowed the vote.
The arguments and counterarguments are extensive. In my googling of the issue to try and find some less well known ones I came across some very interesting and highly condescending articles from those in the against camp. An article by Michael White in the Guardian from 2008 goes through six paragraphs of such condescension and tarnishing by association (Gordon Brown liked it so it must be bad!) until he actually arrives at the issue. Meanwhile Ed West in the Telegraph from 2010 starts off with a pot shot at the Co-op before getting down to arguing the voting age should be raised to 21, not lowered to 16 (thus increasing the Tories share of the vote… they don’t call it the Torygraph for nothing…).
Before we look at the counterarguments though, let’s look at the reasons why extending the political franchise might be a good idea:
1) Representation + Consistency: U18s can pay tax, get married, join the army, enter employment, drive a car etc Why not allow them the right to vote? As the Boston Tea Party motto goes; no taxation without representation.
2) Increasing Democracy (turnout) and increasing political participation: This is an issue I’ll get into more detail with later, as improving young people’s (and indeed, adults) participation in politics is an important thing to do.
3) Give young people more of a voice in the political arena: You know, maybe make politicians think twice about tuition fees, cutting EMA etc…
And now to the counter:
1) Some 16 year olds pay tax, most don’t. 10 year olds pay VAT on stuff they buy with their pocket (or however gained) money. Does that mean extending the vote to them? Yes we can let 16 year olds join the army. Perhaps child soldiers in 21st century Britain is an issue we should address separately. Equally, we’ve had moves to increase the age at which tobacco can be bought. Perhaps driving and marriage should follow suit, rather than lowering the voting age to match.
2) Increasing turnout by extending the vote to those least likely to use it seems faintly ridiculous.
3) As, sadly, does the idea that giving young people the vote would actually change anything. So few would vote it would hardly be worth a party’s while using real political capital to appeal to them and not another demographic.
Then we come onto the arguments against:
1) Under 18s aren’t mature/knowledgable/responsible enough to vote
2) We have to draw the line somewhere and 18 is the widely accepted point of becoming an adult.
3) U18s are far more likely to be coerced into voting a particular way by parents, friends or evil left-wing teachers brainwashing kids with their PC, liberal agenda…
(The obvious counter argument to 1) is that so are many adults. Then again, we have to draw the line somewhere or else have exemptions and tests to permit certain youngsters the vote, whilst denying it to certain adults.)
From the arguments in a purely by the points debate style, I’d have to say the nays have it. It’s very hard to argue for extending the vote to U18s, frankly, because it isn’t a good idea… but…
What about extending the vote to 16 year olds in local elections?
I would argue this carries with it some added arguments for, whilst negating many of the arguments against.
1) Young people are often more effected by local politics than adults or more affected by local politics than they are by national politics. Young people use parks more so than adults (as well as open spaces in general, having young people able to voice issues about lack of things to do through the ballot box will have some meaning and might just make politicians think twice before closing down local clubs). They’re likely to be subject to anti-social behaviour and crime as well as other localised social problems. Plus local councils still retain some powers in education, a key issue for U18s, along with local jobs and the local economy.
2) Allowing them to vote in local elections would bring responsibility to them in a measured way. It acknowledges they’re not as mature as adults, but still says they should have ‘a’ say. And at worst, even in the nightmare scenario for the suburban Telegraph reader that the youth vote actually sways things, the worst they’re doing is electing a councillor – not that I’m knocking the work of councillors, just that it’s not the end of the world. Whilst on the flip side their vote will count more in a local election due to the smaller wards and lower turnouts, thus encouraging participation and giving them the feeling of having sway in the proceedings.
3) Ensures young people are registered to vote and know the procedure come the general elections: In Nick Cleggs’ constituency at the last election, large numbers of (mainly younger) voters were turned away for turning up late to vote without polling cards. Establish how the voting procedure works early on, get them registered, de-mystify the process in the local elections, so that the general elections are smoother going for all concerned.
And of course the other for arguments still stand as well.
One thing I wouldn’t argue this would do is increase political participation though. For that we need something else, something which is sadly lacking in schools at the moment: Education.
Seriously, I know there are things like ‘citizenship’ classes, but the reality is British schoolkids are wholly uneducated on the subject of politics and government. The number of MPs in parliament (what parliament is) what the basic positions of the main political parties are, how laws get made, how governments are formed and voting works… all very basic stuff which the vast majority of kids are never even taught.
I can remember one of the most surreal experiences of mine at University was having half my university poker club gathered around me asking questions about politics/parliament/voting etc. I’d struck up a conversation with a student who (as all 1st years must ask each other) had asked what I was studying. Upon the revelation I was studying politics came a flurry of questions about all aspects of the political system. At first I assumed this was politeness, but soon it became apparent he was genuinely interested, and it wasn’t long until I had a small crowd of followers all asking their own questions.
Not all, but a lot of young people are interested in these things, and even those who aren’t interested should at least have to put up with being told about how their democracy functions as much as they should be lectured about sedimentary rocks. At the moment this isn’t happening. It’s hardly surprising turnout can be so low, and the standard of political debate so weak (this blog being the exemption).
Proper politics lessons please. There is so much more than just a basic understanding of our democracy that can be learnt; oratory + confidence skills. Critical thinking and logical argument forming skills, debating and essay structure… Politics is often sneered at or considered boring, not for young people, or those commonly disenfranchised from society; the poor, ethnic minorities etc… education is seen as the way to deliver better socioeconomic prospects to such people, so it can also provide greater political understanding too.
So, votes in local elections for 16 year olds, and education in politics for U16s. Ensure that when they come to the ballot box they have the knowledge, understanding and, if not maturity, at least the capability to decide who should represent them. Denying the vote from them, that’s one thing, but denying those attributes, that is wrong.