In the last two weeks Westminster and Holyrood have voted to go in two separate elections – the national Parliament voting against an SNP amendment to allow voters aged 16 and over to vote in the forthcoming EU referendum, and the Scottish Parliament voting to extend the franchise in all Scottish elections (ie. Scottish Parliament and Scottish local councils) to all aged 16 and over.
With the focus of electoral reformers largely focused on attempting to get rid of First-Past-the-Post, it is easy to overlook that the likes of the Electoral Reform Society have also been campaigning to lower the voting age to 16. The franchise has not been extended in such a manner since 1969, when the threshold was lowered from 21 to 18, and pro-reform campaigners largely focus on three main arguments:
- Young people are increasingly impacted by government decisions, therefore ought to have a say in their government.
- Young people are less likely to turn out to vote than older generations; introducing the vote while at school may encourage them to learn the habit of voting.
- The age of adulthood is rapidly being reduced – by 16 you can be married (or living as married), employed, living independently of your parents, and a parent.
On the face of it, it would appear an open and shut case to extend the franchise to those aged 16 and over. I however would like to approach from a slightly different angle, and ask the basic underlying question: “What entitles someone to the right to vote?”
Last week also saw the celebration of the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, and it served to remind us that the vote was not an automatic birthright. Parliament in the first instance was the reluctant recognition by the monarch that if he wanted to tax men of property to pay for his wars, then the men of property expected to be consulted on how the nation was run. The franchise was therefore established primarily on the basis of property, not birthright, and over time this clause was progressively weakened until the point it was eliminated entirely. The decision that all men were entitled to the vote paved the way for women to have the vote, and in time to remove the entitlement of special voting privileges – such as the so-called ‘university seats’ (voted for by graduates of Oxford and Cambridge). In summary therefore, the question of entitlement to vote has effectively moved from who is entitled to vote, to who is not entitled to vote – which aside of certain specific restrictions is determined solely by whether one is old enough.
I think we can agree that the vote is not something you are immediately entitled to from the moment of your birth, and that there is a transitionary point at which one is deemed responsible enough to be entrusted with the vote.This is very well expressed in this excellent article by Julia Hartley-Brewer in the Telegraph. She points out that her eight-year-old daughter is more politically savvy than the average grown-up, but it is somewhat absurd to suggest she is entitled to vote!It is worth briefly asking if there were criteria other than age by which one could judge a person mature enough to vote.
While the neatest solution would be some sort of objective test by which a person proves they have sufficient command and understanding of the responsibility of voting that they can be entrusted with it, I could never support that. It would be ridiculously easy to set the bar too low or too high, or to introduce criteria into the test that have no right to be there, even if intended with the best intentions. We therefore use age as the determining factor for the same reason that there are age restrictions for other activities – while an imperfect measure, it is a means of ensuring that the person involved is mature enough to responsibly engage in the activity.
And that seems to be the greatest weakness in the argument for electoral reform – there is an arbitrary call to reduce the voting age without asking why a person should be entitled to or excluded from the electorate. The debate on the voting age is not as narrow as a debate on the electoral franchise. It is a debate about a bigger and much more significant issue – the age at which we ask our young people to accept the full responsibility that comes from being a mature adult. And the huge flaw in the call to reduce the voting age, is that it is not accompanied by calls to confer other adult ‘rights’ usually granted at 18. There is a good reason for that – under 18s are still children.
This statement is intended to be provocative, and every one of us can think of teenagers who are uncommonly mature for their age – but that’s rather the point. We are struck by a mature teenager (or even younger child) precisely because it is so unusual to see such maturity. I don’t think it does any of us any harm to swallow our pride and remember what we were like, even in our late teens. This is most obviously seen at universities – in between fresh-faced first years and a student’s final year a lot of maturing happens – surprising though it may seem, there really is a lifetime between those three or four years.
Don’t get me wrong – conferring responsibility is an important part of the process by which a child matures. The most beautiful description I have ever heard of parenting is “it is the act of progressively letting your child go.” It recognises that there is an equal risk of harm in giving your child too much freedom too soon, or not enough freedom quickly enough – but that the ultimate aim is for the child to become independent and able to successfully support themselves. On the face of it, this might sound like a good argument to let children vote earlier and learn the responsibility of their vote – why not have votes for even younger than 16? I would present two arguments however, as to why the franchise is best left at 18.
The first recognises that children are especially vulnerable to coercion, whether from parents or from peers. The problem here is not with children who have strong political convictions, who are protected by the secrecy of the ballot. The issue is for children who either have not yet developed the self-esteem to defend their choice, or those who have less interest in politics and are cajoled into voting a particular way. While this also applies to some over 18s too, they are less likely to be influenced as they are more likely to be living independently of their parents, nor are they in a hotbed environment like schools, where school elections demonstrate it is often popularity and forcefulness of character that carry the day, rather than issues. You only need to look at the example of the ‘Cybernats’ to imagine a scenario where schoolchildren are bullied into voting a certain way just to fit in. Regardless of the age you believe a person should be entitled to vote, I think it can be agreed that the action of voting should be an action to promote the maturity and independent decision-making of the voter. Giving the vote to children not yet ready to take that responsibility is not encouraging this – and arguably gives them a negative impression of the democratic process.
The second reason also pre-empts a reaction to the first point. “Of course you wouldn’t let young children vote,” you might say, “But 16 year olds are surely mature enough to take these decisions?” I therefore refer you back to the terms in which I have framed this debate – I think we can accept the point that voting should mark a transition to adult life with adult responsibilities. But the decision to lower the voting age is not consistent with lowering the age at which one can buy alcohol, or drive a car, or leave full-time education. Voting is a responsibility that ought to be tied to a transition to adulthood; and we should not be encouraging our young people to grow up too quickly.
Unlike the debate on changing our electoral system, I have very little patience for the appeals to give votes to 16 year olds. The reasoning for change has not been grounded in any kind of rigorous logic, nor does it merit the narrative of reform or justice that advocates for change have been using. It is my view that the age at which one is entitled to vote should be tied the age at which one is deemed ready for adult responsibilities – and that at this present moment there is no convincing argument that the age of adulthood should be lowered to 16.