Are we ready to lower the voting age to 16 for all UK elections?
Firstly, it's important to clarify what we mean by ready. We are ready if the state lowering of voting age has more advantages than disadvantages. When we say votes at 16, we mean 16- and 17-year olds being allowed to vote in parliamentary and local elections, in the four countries in the United Kingdom.
Currently, there are different voting rights across the UK. In Scotland, 16-year olds can vote in local elections, and Wales are about to follow in Scotland's footsteps. Additionally, 16-17-year olds could vote in the Scottish independence referendum of 2014, where 75% of the 16-17 age group voted, with 97% of those who voted saying they'd vote again.
Those arguing on the Yes side highlighted several important facts. At the age of 16, you can get married or register a civil partnership with parental consent, drive a moped or invalid carriage, pilot a glider, get a National Insurance number, pay income tax, as well as give consent and have sex. The difference between the rights and responsibilities of a 16 and an 18-year-old are "mostly social" - they are about "protecting young people" and keeping them safe. At the age of 18, new rights mean you are legally considered an adult (the age of majority), you can buy and drink alcohol in a bar, watch an 18 rated film, and freely (without the permission of a parent) do the things that you could do at 16. You can also stand as a Member of Parliament or a local Councillor, and you are no longer required to continue in learning or training.
However, as those arguing on the No side did argue that although there are many rights one is granted at 16, they are not universally realised at that age. For example, although those aged 16-17 are legally allowed to get married, not many do; likewise, not many 16-year olds pay tax.
A key theme that was present throughout the event was the theme of engagement, with those arguing against the motion asking the jury that if young people were to tick a box on a ballot paper every 4 or 5 years, would that mean they're politically engaged? There would be a need to make sure no young person is marginalised from the voting process. They also made the point that we need to set up structures that for listening to young people every day, for example through the means of All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs). They also posed another question to the jury: what’s more important - ticking boxes or developing wholesome young people who are engaged in the political system?
When members of the team for the motion cross-examined a local counsellor involved in Youth Parliament, the Councillor raised the point that if we were to simply drop the voting age, it doesn't fix the problem of engagement. Today, only 1 in 5 young people are politically engaged. He talked about the need to get young people to think about what they're passionate about, for example through the National Citizens Service (NCS), getting young people to think about what matters to them, not to push politics upon them but educating them about it.
The team for the motion pointed out that only 10% of 16-17-year olds get involved with NCS. 500,000 young people over a 7-year period have taken part, although the government has already invested £1.5bn in the programme. Also, only 1% of young people participate in local youth councils, so wouldn’t trying to engage them through ballots be a good idea? Votes for 16-year olds would let the political parties directly connect with young people.
If young people were to have the right to vote, then they would have the responsibility of developing political opinions of their own, although lowering the voting age in isolation wouldn't offer the opportunity for young people to learn about politics. At the moment, political education is not a priority for teachers, so it is not a priority for students. England has campaigned for a GCSE in politics, but would turning politics into a qualification put young people off? The issue of youth sections of parties was also discussed; since young people are simply members of a party they shouldn't be treated differently.
Although there are opportunities for young people to actively express their beliefs, such as the recent protests against climate change, our power to effect political change is ultimately inconsequential. Would giving young people the vote, give them the voice that they are looking for? Are we ready to lower the voting age to 16 in all UK elections?