This is not a political blog post. This is a post by a dad of 4, one of whom turns 16 this year. There’s no doubt that sixteen is a milestone age to reach. But, should we agree with the campaign to lower the voting age limit from 18 to 16?
A brief history of the voting age
In the UK, the minimum age you can legally vote is 18. It has been 18 since the Representation of the People Act 1969 lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, with effect from 1970. In Scotland, the voting age was reduced to 16 for its own and Scottish local election in 2015.
In 1999 the House of Commons considered an amendment proposed to the Representation of the People Bill. Until then, reducing the voting age below 18 had never been put to a vote in the Commons. The Government opposed the amendment and in the subsequent vote, it was heavily defeated by 434 votes to 36.
The Electoral Commission carried out a study in 2004 on lowering the voting age from 18 to 16. The results showed that the majority of those surveyed wanted the voting age to stay at 18 (I am not clear on the age groups of those studied). It found also that most countries also set the voting age at 18 and that arriving at a single definition of ‘maturity’ is difficult. This bolstered the argument for retaining 18 as the age of electoral majority.
As recently as 2015, the Labour party said it would support lowering the voting age if it won the election – which they failed to do.
What can you do at 16?
When you turn 16 there’s an awful lot you can then legally do. Here a list, though probably nowhere near exhaustive:
- Get married or register a civil partnership with consent
- Drive a moped or invalid carriage
- You can consent to sexual activity with others aged 16 and over
- Drink wine/beer with a meal if accompanied by someone over 18
- Get a National Insurance number
- Join a trade union
- Work full-time if you have left school
- Be paid national minimum wage for 16/17-year-olds
- Join the Armed Forces with parental consent
- Change name by deed poll
- Leave home with or without parental consent
- In certain circumstances, you must pay for prescriptions, dental treatment and eye tests
- Choose a GP
- Consent to medical treatment
- Buy premium bonds
- Pilot a glider
- Buy a lottery ticket
- Register as a blood donor, but you won’t be called to give blood until you’re 17
- Apply for a passport without parental consent
It’s often thought that you also start paying tax on your earnings once you turn 16, that is if you are earning anything. But actually, if you were earning beyond the tax-free threshold whilst under 16 you would be eligible to pay tax on that anyway.
Notwithstanding the tax issues, there are some pretty big things that come with hitting the 16-year milestone age in the UK.
However, eligibility to vote is not one of them.
What about other countries
I found this rather useful map that allowed me to find out that most of our European neighbours also set the voting age at 18.
The exceptions are Austria, Malta, Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man where the age is 16.
In fact, globally the voting age is overwhelmingly set at 18 years old.
On a side note, I also discovered through this map that voting is mandatory in some countries, such as Luxemburg. That’s a whole other argument.
The argument to lower the voting age
When Tony Blair and the (New) Labour party stormed to victory at the 1997 general election I had just turned 17. I’d left school at 16 and I was working, therefore earning money and paying income tax. I did feel a little aggrieved about the apparent injustice at this, but I must have quickly got over it.
The Liberal Democrats argue that the Conservative government “stick to arguments of tradition rather than trusting in the next generation” and that “England is now behind the rest of the UK in empowering young people”.
Forget party politics
Of course, listening to the argument of one political party isn’t the best way to look at this. The Lib Dems would argue that the Tories are out of touch with the youth in the UK and that their policies wouldn’t go down well with 16 and 17-year-olds. It could be argued that one parties own self-interest and perceived popularity with that age group isn’t being objective.
In 2014 there were 1.5 million 17-year-olds in the UK. However, that’s not 1.5 million extra votes up for grabs at a general election. These potential younger voters would be divided into the constituencies that decide on individual MPs. So, it’s not as simple as it might look for the likes of the Lib Dems
Should we give 16-year-olds the vote?
I struggle to answer this. Even with a daughter approaching 16, I’m not sure.
16-year-olds come in many forms, I have found. Some can be wise and mature beyond their years and yet others can seem very immature indeed. But does maturity come into the equation?
Putting aside the fact under 16s are technically eligible to be taxed, most of us don’t start earning enough to pay tax until we hit 16. On that basis, given that tax is decided on by the government, why should they have a say in who that government is?
With a parent’s permission, a 16-year-old can join the armed forces. They are serving Her Majesty and her government. So again, why shouldn’t they have a say in who that government is?
At 16 you can legally consent to sex (with another person aged 16 or over). This is a major thing and life decision and we entrust 16-year-olds with that. Yet, we can’t trust them to vote in an election!
Are 16-year-olds mature enough to vote?
The question that arises most is whether 16-year-olds are mature enough to vote.
I find this question rather irritating given the above cases where they are deemed mature enough for other big decisions. After all, the Government deem you mature enough at 16 to legally have sex, thus you can legally become a parent if you wish. That’s a pretty big decision they are trusting you with there.
However, that same study found that many people think that 18 is TOO YOUNG to vote and that it should be raised. I find this concept absurd.
On the basis of the precedents set in terms of what is permissible at 16, I would argue that they are mature enough to vote.
But, many parents may well argue that their 16-year-olds are nowhere near mature enough to truly understand who and what they are voting for.
Personally, I see 18 to be a fitful age for a person to be able to vote.
In terms of age restrictions on voting, we’re in line with almost every other country on the planet. If we were significantly out of step I might think differently.
I would actually argue that the age restrictions on marriage, consent to sex and joining the military be moved to 18 to match the voting age. Given that some form of education is now statutory up to 18-years-old I find this to be the most logical course of action.
What do you think?