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Votes at 16: no solution to anything







The campaign to lower the age at which an individual can vote in the UK – from its current 18, to 16 – has been given a fresh boost by the Government’s willingness to concede giving 16 year olds the vote in the Scottish independence referendum in return for the Scottish Government agreeing to a single referendum question.

As someone who sat on the Government’s Youth Citizenship commission which reported in 2009 and which considered the voting age amongst other things, .  There is a useful summary of the case against here, which runs through these various myths.

Not much has changed since the Electoral Commission considered the subject in 2004 and rejected it.  But those interested in the subject should also look at the Hansard Society’s Audit of Engagement carried out in 2008.  They examined public faith and understanding in eleven different aspects of the British constitution.  They found just three where the majority of the public said they understood the issue, and only one where the majority of the public said they approved of the current position.  There was just one issue – out of eleven – where the majority of the public both understood and supported the constitution: and that was having a voting age of 18.  So it’s a bizarre way to reinvigorate democracy: find the only issue where a majority both understand and agree, and then do the exact opposite.

Philip Cowley

Published inBritish PoliticsYoung People


  1. jack jack

    Ok, surely the assumption here is that a change in the voting age in order to be right, has to be a solution to some identifiable pre-existing problem. On the basis of this logic you could make the exact opposite argument and reach the exact opposite conclusion “keeping the voting age at 18: a solution to anything?” which clearly indicates that the logic is flawed.

    Equally the fact that the existing electorate believes in a particular logic of exclusion strongly, though relevant to the politics of the problem, doesnt constitute a logical argument in and of itself. Surely a similar poll of the electorate in 1960s Ulster would have found over-whelming supoport for retaining the property qualification. But again there is no rational logic in that attitude, which could convince those excluded.

    So if we begin without assumptions which pre-determine our conclusions, we have to ask what would be the rational justification for 16 or 18. Its not something Ive thought about a great deal I must admit, but off the top of my head Id probably say 16 seems the more sensible of the two, 16 is the level at which the state deems an individual to have completed the compulsory amount of education neccesary to adequately function in society, and therefore it could be reasonably deduced from that to vote. 18 by contrast, as far as Im aware has no such universal qualification, unless we think voting relates logically to smoking, drinking alcohol or gambling (well maybe this last one!).

    Changing the voting age may well not be a solution to any particular problem, but thats the wrong place to start from, the right place to start surely has to be which is the better option of the two and this seems much more open to debate.

    • This is an interesting comment, but not sure it stands up to much examination. Let’s start by taking the views of those with the franchise. I agree that they are not the only consideration – pre-1832, I bet many of those with the vote thought the franchise just fine as it was – but it is a consideration, especially as:

      1) polls of those below 18 don’t find any great support for lowering to 16 either;
      2) those over 18 were younger once, and those below 18 will get the vote when they are older (so it’s not comparable, say, to women before 1918);
      3) votes at 16 is often given as a way of ‘reinvigorating’ our political system (so it’s fair to point out, as this piece does that it is currently the only bit of the system that folk both understand and approve of, so best left alone, maybe; and…
      4) because if we are looking, as you suggest, for an age at which folk *think* people are old enough, we could at least ask them.

      In terms of the views of the ‘state’, I’m afraid that’s just wrong. If there is an age at which people are considered ‘adult’, by which we mean the age at which we allow them to do things, without requiring parental consent and entirely of their own choosing, then that age is much more likely to be 18 than 16. That’s true of sex, marriage, joining the armed forces, etc. Moreover, if there is a general direction of travel in the way the law has changed in recent years, it is up, to 18, and away from 16. Even education, which is the example you give: whilst people can leave at 16, we now have an expectation of young people staying on until they are 18.

  2. jack jack

    Phil, thanks for the response, yep you`re right to say that it is often said that changing the age qualification would “re-invigorate” democracy, I think we can both agree this is a weak argument with very little evidence to support it.

    The question is, for me at least, whether there are other, better arguments. On this basis, maybe you could clarify a couple of points for me. I understand that ther are several things which are banned under the age of 18 (though not sex, which is one of the examples you include, which is 16 I believe) but again, I don’t understand logically how these relate to voting. As I mentioned in the previous post, drinking, smoking, gambling, all are prohibited before the age of 18, but the logic for banning these activities is because they are deemed harmful to young people, surely we don’t consider voting harmful? It seems to me there are different logics going on. Even the example of marriage, which seems closer to the point, doesn’t necessarily add up, given that we allow people to become parents at 16, there seems a logical contradiction between those two laws. Also I agree (and it seems the strongest argument to me) that there are certain restrictions on financial activities under the age of 18, but again the logical connection between that and voting seems hazy, as late as the 1970s women required a man`s signature (a father or a husband) in order to acquire credit, but theyd had the vote since the 1920s.

    Im interested in stripping back the laws which seem confused and contradictory, and looking for the logical basis from which we might derive a rational qualification for voting age. Here again, I have to say 16 as the age at which compulsory education is completed seems the only real basis. Yes you`re right to say there is a gradual process of raising this age, but its not there yet, I know when I completed compulsory education at 16, around 75% left school to join the world of work (im aware that probably wasn’t representative even then in the early 2000s). Again, I come back to the logic, while we might agree that shifts are happening, that’s only blurring the argument, that is the level at which society deems compulsory education to have been completed, and surely that is the only logical basis upon which the ability to vote can be derived.

    Its an interesting point you make about polls of 16-18 year olds on the subject, do you have those statistics? Even so it doesn’t neccesarily make the position, Id be interested to know if most women in the late 19th century supported female suffrage, id guess it was far from overwhelming, but that doesn’t mean it was rational or correct.

    • This is an issue with more than its share of myths. One of them, for example, is that the age of consent in the UK is 16. In terms of having sex with a person of your choosing it is 18. Between 16 and 18, sex with a person who is in a position of authority over you is illegal. Similarly, we do not (in England and Wales) allow young people to marry at 16, unless they have parental permission. Ditto for joining the armed forces, which also requires parental permission below the age of 18. These caveats say something to me about where the ‘state’ (or at least our laws) think adulthood begins.

      Moreover, many of these are age related laws are, if anything, increasing the bar – things like gambling, buying a firework, buying cigarettes and so on.

      That said, for what it’s worth I’ve never seen the virtues of consistency on this. I can’t see why there should be one age at which you do can everything – indeed, it surely makes more sense to have different rights and responsibilities kick in at different ages. I have never understood the link between sex and voting, for example, a bizarre comparison. My point is just that the claims made about other ages by those wanting to lower the voting age are often wrong, and that the direction of travel is not downwards, but upwards.

      I also agree about public opinion; a guide, no more. But it is at least useful to know that most folk think it’s fine as it is, and there’s no great enthusiasm from below 18.

      If we are looking for sensible comparisons, however, why not jury service? The age for which is 18.

  3. jack jack

    Can you clarify, do you mean below the age of 18 you are not free to choose to conduct a sexual relationship with someone in a position of authority over you? My understanding is that you are free to choose your partner aside from this qualification. Surely the rationale for this qualification is that such a relationship would be coercive and thus not free, and so again speaks to a logic of harm.As I suggested, it does seem to me a logical contradiction, that if we accept child-rearing should occur within marriage (whether we agree or disagree with this morally, this is surely the basis of much of the legislation in this area of law) we have a legal system which makes it legal to have children at 16, but illegal to marry (without parental consent) until 18.

    I agree there should be different age qualifications for different things, (the example of buying fireworks illustrates this perfectly)my point would be that 16 seems the more sensible in relation to voting, based on the argument that this right logically derives from a certain degree of education which society has determined as socially neccessary..

    The comparison with Jury service is an interesting one, my gut reaction I have to say is that I wouldn’t be overly keen to have a 16 or an 18 year old making complex decisions over my liberty, Id probably go higher to 21 or even 25. The two roles seem slightly different though, in voting you are making decisions about the way in which you yourself are able to live, in jury service you are making a decision which has no direct impact upon you. I think philosophically, we accept that individuals should have greater rights to make decisions regarding their own liberty than they should have in relation to the liberty of others, and so, I could see a justification for two separate age qualifications on the basis that to make decisions upon others citizens you need a greater degree of life experiences than to make decisions directly related to your own rights and responsibilities.

    • That is, indeed, the situation with the age of consent. My point is simply that the ‘authority’ clause means that the right to choose one’s sexual partner does not begin until 18. After 18, sex is legal even if the other person is in a position of authority over you. I don’t place my weight on this – I raise it simply because you queried it – and as I said, I’ve never seen the utility of linking the age of consent and voting.

      Obviously, if you choose to link the franchise to any other activity then the age of the franchise will vary according to whichever act you choose. In your case it is schooling, so logically this would would presumably have meant that the age for voting would have been 14 until 1944, and 15 until 1972…? Perhaps more importantly, around 3/4s of 16-18 year olds now stay in education past the age of 16 and that it is government policy for the leaving age to rise to 18 soon. So, even if we accepted your logic and linked the voting age to the school leaving age, the case for 16 is not currently very strong.

  4. I think this is one of the areas where there is a marked difference between Scotland and England. In Scotland, where it’s always been legal to marry at 16 without parental consent, most people feel 16 is the real coming of age. (Note also that half of Scottish young people finish the last year of high school at 17 1/2, so starting university at that age is completely normal.)
    I expect an independent Scotland to make votes at 16 the default, whereas the rUK will probably stick to 18 for everything.

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