In Depth

Should the voting age be lowered to 16?

Welsh National Assembly announces plans to let under-18s go to the polls - but not everyone is in favour

The Welsh National Assembly has announced a series of electoral reform proposals that could see 16- and 17-year-olds given the right to vote in local elections.

The changes outlined in the bill, announced on Monday, would mean that around 75,000 young people would be added to Wales’ electoral roll - and would almost certainly galvanise those campaigning for similar changes to the general election process across the UK.

All opposition parties in Parliament currently back the idea of lowering the voting age to 16, which would extend the right to vote to a total of 1.5 million teenagers and bring the rest of the UK into line with Scotland, where the voting age for Scottish parliamentary and local elections was lowered in 2015. 

However, an attempt to lower the threshold in time for December’s general election was thwarted in October when Parliament ruled out a vote on the issue.

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Why is the voting age 18?

The voting age in the UK was 21 until 1969, when it was lowered to 18 by Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson under the Representation of the People Act.

Campaigners subsequently began pushing to reduce the age threshold further to 16, but bills proposing the change were rejected by Parliament in 1999 and 2005.

In 2014, 16- and 17-year-olds were granted a vote in Scotland’s independence referendum, a right that was extended the following year to cover Scottish elections. 

“This - combined with the overwhelming age gap between Remain and Leave voters in the UK’s 2016 European referendum - has firmly placed the voting age back on the national agenda,” according to The Independent.

The pros

Votes at 16 would be “consistent with other areas of responsibility”, says Britpolitics, which points out that people of this age can “marry, join the Armed Forces and consent to medical treatment”.

The educational site also argues that the government “needs to reduce the political alienation of young people”, who are affected by a “wide range of political decisions” including “tax rates, job seekers’ allowance, university fees, bullying and public transport”.

Calling for the age cut ahead of the 2017 general election, Molly Scott Cato, Green Party MEP for Southwest England, said: “At 16, you’re eligible to pay taxes, you can leave home, you can get married, you can even join the Armed Forces.

“If you can do any of these things, you are entitled to vote - you are entitled to have a say in the direction of your country, you're entitled to have your say on the key issues affecting your life.”

David Runciman, a professor of politics at Cambridge University, adds that an ageing electorate means young people are now also “massively outnumbered, resulting in an inbuilt bias against governments who plan for the future”.

Earlier this year, the Institute for Public Policy Research think-tank argued that the voting age should be lowered to 16 because today’s young people face a “toxic inheritance” of environmental crises and will probably be economically worse off than their parents as a result of “decisions taken by elites in these generations, most of whom have only a small chance of being alive by 2050”.

The cons

Critics of the proposal point out that many of the powers allowed to 16-year-olds are limited, such as not being able to join the Armed Forces without the permission of their parents.

“At 16, people may not have the maturity and life experience to make political judgements,” says Britpolitics, which adds that they “may still be under the influence of parents and teachers or college lecturers” and “may also be easily influenced by popular trends”.

Professor Philip Cowley, a political scientist at Queen Mary University of London, suggests that overall turnout could drop if the voting age were lowered, because evidence indicates that 16- and 17-year-olds would be less likely to vote than older people.

Money could be spent to specifically target these younger voters, as was the case in the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum, he told the BBC.

But “if young voters are ready to vote then we should not need to allocate specific resources to mobilise them”, Cowley said.

“That we do indicates that they are not ready.”

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