New Internationalist

Argument: Should 16-year-olds get the vote?

September 2013

Politics academic Andrew Mycock and UK Youth Parliament member Chanté Joseph go head-to-head.

Every month we invite two experts to debate, and then invite you to join the conversation online.

Chanté

The extension of the franchise to 16-year-olds is not one simple idea – it’s a multifaceted concept. Not only are we giving younger members of the population the vote, we are essentially awakening the politically dormant minds of young people. The ability to participate in a free election is a fundamental human right, so not only are we marginalizing young people if we deny them the vote, but we are stripping them of something they have a basic right to do. What does this say about our society?

YES: CHANTÉ JOSEPH is the Member of the Youth Parliament for Brent in northwest London, as well as regional secretary. She sits on the Youth Select Committee for transport and is a member of the London Youth Involvement Project. She is 17 and is studying for the International Baccalaureate.

In what way can we justify that the voice of a 36-year-old is more important than that of a 16-year-old? Eighty-five per cent of young people in Britain currently attend schools with their own council, and in the academic year 2011/12 over 590,000 young people voted in youth elections. There is a clear understanding of, and engagement with, democracy at a young age – this should not be ignored but encouraged, before it’s too late and we lose another generation of important voters. 

Do we live in a democracy if we cannot effectively involve young people? By engaging young people we are giving them a platform to be heard by enabling them to be politically active at a national level.

Andrew

I agree that issues of youth citizenship are complex. This is why I have concerns about a voting age of 16 being presented as a panacea to issues of wider democratic representation and participation. If not allowing 16-year-olds to vote went against international human rights laws, most states would be guilty of denying young people a ‘basic right’.

NO: ANDREW MYCOCK is Reader in Politics at the University of Huddersfield. He has published widely on the ‘Politics of Britishness’, citizenship education policy, and democratic youth engagement. He was part of the Youth Citizenship Commission which reported to the UK government in 2009.

Issues of political maturity are also complex, but many young people continue to complain they lack knowledge and experience to participate fully in mainstream politics. Research by the Youth Citizenship Commission in the UK suggested citizenship education and youth representative initiatives in schools and communities are having a positive impact on political literacy and activism. However, delivery of citizenship education is in its infancy and many young people raise questions about the quality of provision in schools. Moreover, our research indicated many school councils lack the power to influence decision-making, and a postcode lottery exists regarding opportunities with youth councils and other forms of youth representation.

Focusing on lowering the voting age is a symptom-led response which does not seek to address the causes of youth democratic marginalization. Political parties, and the UK political system more widely, continue to overlook the particular interests of young people – but there is scant evidence that under-18s are clamouring to introduce votes at 16. There is a need to change the culture of our politics before we consider lowering the voting age.

Chanté

Giving 16-year-olds the vote is not necessarily a way to cure young people’s distaste for politics, but I believe it could be a way to incentivize political activity among young people. They should be encouraged to have more political involvement; our democracy is weak without the voice of young people.

Giving 16-year-olds the vote is not necessarily a way to cure young people’s distaste for politics, but it could be a way to incentivize political activity among young people. Our democracy is weak without the voice of young people - Chanté

Perhaps it’s more of a confidence issue: perhaps young people believe they do not know enough about the political system because they are not welcomed to understand it. Low voting turnouts in many countries could indicate that many people feel like they don’t have enough experience or knowledge to participate in mainstream politics – but we do not deny these people the vote. A person’s age has no correlation with their political maturity; at 30 or 17, you can be politically active, or choose to not be. The vote means something different to everyone, but it can give young people understanding of their place in the political system.

I am in full agreement that citizenship education is vital for young people’s understanding of mainstream politics. However, not everyone learns best from a classroom, and the experience of political participation is far more valuable than pen and paper.

Andrew

Lowering the voting age has, as yet, failed to catch the imagination of most young people in the UK. This is in part because many recognize that the current challenges of increasing youth participation in elections cannot be solved simply by lowering the age of electoral enfranchisement. If such issues were easily resolved by lowering the voting age alone, why do so few 18 to 24-years-olds vote when they have the opportunity to do so?

Those seeking to lower the voting age to 16 often cite that young people are able to marry, join the army or pay taxes. However, the age of responsibility does not coalesce around the age of 16 so it is unclear why voting should be a ‘right’ at this age – Andrew

Voting is only one of many different forms of political activism. There is need for a more sophisticated response from advocates supporting youth citizenship towards achieving a radical overhaul of democratic politics. For example, political parties marginalize younger members within ‘youth’ sections, thus suggesting they are somehow different from mainstream members. Parties also often isolate young people from policy-making processes, and few politicians prioritize youth issues and concerns when compared to older voters. Young people over the age of 18 often find few youth-orientated policies to inspire them to vote in elections. It is highly doubtful that lowering the voting age by two years would significantly address this oversight.

There is a need for political parties to encourage young people to stand for representative positions in greater numbers and also empower them to develop more youth-focused policies. Political parties and politicians also need to change the language of politics, leaving isolating vernacular behind. It is not simply the act of voting which is important; the potential to connect with and support politicians and political parties are crucial elements which encourage life-long democratic participation.

Chanté

You infer a link between current low turnouts of 18 to 24-year-olds and a suspected low turnout of 16 and 17-year-olds, if they had the right to vote. My main objection to this is quite simply that I believe that having a say in the matters that directly affect you is a basic human rights issue. Whether at 16 and 17 you choose to use this right, and vote, is not my first concern. It is hard to see how this argument amounts to much more than denying young people the vote to essentially cover up how low political engagement really is.

Having said that, we would all like to see much greater political engagement and I would contest that the proposed link between these two turnout rates simply isn’t justified. It is more likely that the voter turnout of this age group is low because young people have had to wait so long to have their voice heard. Under the current system in Britain, people often finish their political education at 16 but may be 23 before they have the chance to vote in their first general election. It is hardly a surprise, when we know that voting is a habit, that if you have to wait seven years to exercise your political voice, you may well have become disengaged.

Theresa Thompson Under a CC Licence
How young is too young to vote? Theresa Thompson Under a CC Licence

You also talk of how political parties marginalize younger members into ‘youth’ sections – this is true, except when it comes to voting, specifically for their leaders; something that can be done from the age of 15 if you are a member of the party.

Granting people the vote at 16 is not a cover-all answer for political engagement and collaborative work needs to continue and grow between political parties, schools, the voluntary sector and, indeed, society as a whole. However, knowing that you would have an opportunity to really affect change, by voting in all local and general elections, would motivate more young people to become more engaged in all aspects of politics.

Andrew

The point I made regarding the voting behaviour of 18 to 24-year-olds was not focused on turnout but wider issues of political disengagement. In the UK, 18-year-olds will have to wait one year at the most to take part in local elections, but many are already disengaged. This cannot be simplistically attributed to the gap in statutory citizenship education between the age of 16 and electoral enfranchisement at 18, particularly as the subject is taught in different ways in schools across the UK. Voting is not simply a matter of habit.

Voters need to feel that they have the potential to influence policy and exert change. Many young people do not feel the political system currently affords such opportunities, and mistrust of politicians is also a considerable factor. Offering the vote to 16 and 17-year-olds will not resolve such issues, though an increasing number of politicians appear to support this rather than seeking to reform their own views and practices.

Those seeking to lower the voting age to 16 in the UK often cite that young people are able to marry, join the army or pay taxes. However, the age of responsibility does not coalesce around the age of 16 so it is unclear why voting should be a ‘right’ at this age. Young people need parental permission to marry or join the army at 16, and since there is no minimum age for paying income and many other taxes 16 is not the age at which taxation commences. Moreover, the Youth Citizenship Commission found that the age of responsibility has actually been pushed upwards over the past 30 years or so. If the voting age were lowered, 16 to 18-year-olds might be considered ‘second class’ citizens – old enough to vote but too young to buy alcohol, cigarettes or fireworks and still reliant on parental approval on many issues. It is this potential to create a ‘two-tier’ citizenship which means that, while I support your tenacity in campaigning for lowering the voting age, I cannot support the logic of your argument.

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 465 This feature was published in the September 2013 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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