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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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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  1. #1 ged Byrne 29 Aug 13

    ’Should 16 year olds get the vote?’

    Hmm.. let me see? Do they pay tax? Yes! So YES, they should get to vote, or else they pay taxation without representation.

  2. #2 Lee Jones 12 Sep 13

    There really should be no need to vote, in my opinion there should only be one government where they listen to everyone's idea's and make there decisions based off the people. Because after all the people are the ones that need these funds and human rights, it is not about just making some politicians a quick buck, and in doing so they have to raise taxes and harm are living styles. The only way the country should be run is to increase and improve the lifestyle's of the people of the United Kingdom. We should just stop fighting/voting for what we want, and just focus on the things that we actually need in our society. I am only a 16 year old in college and I heavily oppose the whole idea of some fat rich conservatives/democrats/others controlling are whole life's, when in there head the majority of them are only in the government to make as much money as they can and to steal as much as the people taxes before they get caught out, most of them haven't even been caught and there cases haven't been exposed, they have stolen a lot more than simple thieves do on a daily bases, they have done worse thing than most murderers and are still aloud to write the laws and especially the human rights.

  3. #3 Gary Davies 20 Sep 13

    I don't have a particularly strong view one way or the other on this issue. But, I find myself leaning slightly towards the ’no’ camp. The reason being, if the state deems someone under the age of eighteen not to be mature enough to drink alcohol, marry or join the forces without consent, as well as other matters like not being able to take control of any inheritance, then maybe you could argue that voting should wait until eighteen too.

  4. #4 Donald Cheesman 14 Nov 13

    Gary Davies, you CAN join the army and murder people at the tender age of 16. You can't buy alcohol, tobacco or get married without parental consent. The whole thing stinks.

  5. #5 Roy Berger 08 Dec 13

    There are so many opportunities and reasons for 16 year old's to vote. To have a say and raise our IQ are the biggest. Changing laws, the charter and Parliament are ordinary activities. We have an opportunity to examin the latest efforts. Regarding Chong and his piece-meal reform bill. He feels MP's don't have enough power. M.P's do have a voice. They can speak. They can vote. They can break ranks. They are trying to toss out the Senate so they can have emotional, knee-jerk reactions on changing legislation. They can vote their conscience. They vote on laws...regular Canadian citizens aren't allowed to vote on laws. M.P.'s can cross the floor. They can ride the bus and use sidewalks. They can write papers. They have assistants and offices. They can bring issues to our attention. They can visit their Riding Association. They seem to have a great deal more power than the rest of us because they do and it's entrenched. It's not like the public votes on laws. It's not a like a single MP bothered to protest to the Governor General about Parliament being pro-rogued. No, give them nothing that they ask for. The House of Commons will use it against the Canadian people.

    Remember when we voted on the 1991 Economic proposals? Canadians voted it down in a land slide. Be a long time before Members of Parliament allow a Canadian to vote on a law again, I bet eh.

    I understand that the first job of a politician is to get elected, you know 'science as a vocation' a la Max Weber but I would like them to be less concerned about re-election. Chong's heart may be in the right place but I'd rather see sixteen year olds lining up for the ballot box and voting booth before I say yes to handing over even more power. Seventeen year olds can join the army. Sixteen year olds can decide how to drive a car. If they are adult enough to be arrested for non-violent crimes, they are certainly old enough to vote. Let them vote. It will raise the political IQ of the average household.

    These laws will affect them for a life time. Almost 40% of adults don't vote. Let the teens have the franchise that adults are abandoning. There is greater merit to letting 16 year olds vote than their is in Mr. Chong's bill. That's how I see it. Our kids are valid. No more power for the elite. Election Canada did a study on the subject a generation ago. Time for a re-visit, a lot has the omnibus war on youth. No, the MP's that are asking for this are the same ones that have let you down for a life time. Too bad we can't vote on it. But that's crappy democracy.

  6. #6 Joe Mitt 29 Dec 13

    Why is the age 16 treated as a God-given in this article? Rather than asking whether 16-year-olds should have the right to vote, the correct question should be: at which age should a person have the right to vote? The answer to this question might potentially be neither 18 nor 16... who knows?

  7. #7 J Wilson 20 Jan 14

    If everyone between 16 & 18 years old were as erudite and politically motivated as Chanté Joseph is, then maybe they should be given the vote. But the truth is the majority of adults aren't as clued up about Human Rights themselves, and worse than that is the fact that voters have become 'turned off politics' because politicians have proven themselves to be corrupt. The 'expenses scandal' of a few years ago is just one example.

    But worse than that is the fact that regardless of their promises as 'representatives of the people', they have in fact been lying about their collective responsibility to those people, and as Governments of UN Member States to the United Nations too. Ever since the UN published The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Dec 1948 every UK Government has claimed it was not 'legally binding' and presumably other UN Member States have done likewise.

    Yet that was 'proclaimed' as The International Bill of Human Rights and could have been automatically legally binding on all States within 12 months, if 48 of the then 56 UN Member States had voted in favour the proposed amendment to it by Russia, to add an Article 31 making it so. However, in the so called 'democratic State' of the UK they didn't even educate anyone of their rights and I can't even find any evidence that the Declaration was even widely publicized at that time.

    So if this is how 'democracy' works, then it's clearly corrupt and/or simply incompetent. The political system which they call democracy is not different from others in this respect because those who, by any means, find themselves controlling power against others, always want to hold on to it. Even if it means lying to people about how they 'respect' their rights, when the opposite is true. This lie even extends to the judiciary as far my experience has been, see for example.

    But returning to the topic of discussion, the Right to Vote, as specified in Article 21 of ''The Universal Declaration' in 1948 was not specific about age as it simply stated that:-
    ’The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures’. So at first glance, and considering the rest of it too, there appears to be no justification for excluding anyone who wants to vote.

    However, even then the 'voting age' was around 21, as that was when it was considered you 'became an adult' and is wasn't until the '70's that 18 year old's got the vote in the UK, I believe. You need to look at other UN documents to actually find that it was they who decided that a 'child' is a person under 18 years of age, and others speak of this as being 'full age' for the right to marry, or 'age of majority' too.

    So if the concepts of the past are to control us, then the age of 'majority,is probably more than 18 again in the UK, because people are living longer, in the absence of World Wars since 1945, and improvements in health care under the NHS. But not having a 'right to vote' shouldn't meant that you can be denied all of your other rights, whereas our State seems to believe that this is their justification for denying their existence.

    They seem to think that as long as people vote for them (and we have a Welfare system) then they can decide for themselves whether or not we are entitled to any other rights. That's simply not right, and is a lie. Politicians and our Judiciary need to be taught a lesson once and for all, that they do not have the right to set down what our 'rights and obligations' are, without full regard to The International Bill of Human Rights and other UN treaties, which is what they've been doing for the past 65 years now.

    So if you want to have your say then support this campaign at because I believe there are no age limits here.

  8. #8 Tenly nuttal 09 Jan 15

    So i'm writing a paper on this topic and this website has been great help... So thanks for that.

    Should 16-year-olds get to vote? Well the state lets teenagers the age of 15 to get their learners permits then when they turn 16 they get to drive. But some people might say that, 16-year-olds aren't mature enough to vote & that it might screw up the election. Yes that's true but why at the age of 16 do we let them get their driver's license, a job, pay taxes, maybe even getting ready for moving out in a year or 2. But my point is why not let them wright a name on a paper on who they want for president? Students do that EVERY SINGLE DAY at school. It's not like their going to get hurt writing a single name on a paper, but who am i kidding, it's not my choice. If I could I would want to change the age to 16 to be able to vote but that's NOT my choice no is it......... I hope I get a good grade on my essay paper thingy................. I hope this information helped you as much as it helped me(my grade) thanks!!! I LOVE ETHAN-T

  9. #9 barbi 02 Dec 15

    its unjust that 16 year olds aren allowed to vote they are just as smart as adults and it sickens me to think that society has said teenagers are just like babies and can't do anything for themselves even think or speak for them selfs for me frankly it is rude unjust and unfair.

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This article was originally published in issue 465

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