Why it’s time to reduce the voting age to 16

Alan Renwick sets out the case for lowering the voting age to 16 for Assembly elections

The Expert Panel on Assembly Electoral Reform reported this week.  Besides the size of the Assembly and its electoral system, the Panel was asked also to examine the franchise for Assembly elections.  Our clear recommendation is that the minimum voting age should be reduced to 16 with effect from the 2021 election.

As a member of the Panel, I found it fascinating to examine the debates over the best voting age.  The evidence for reducing the minimum age to 16 is very strong.  But the arguments of both proponents and opponents of this change often fail to hit the mark.  I hope our report may help to reset the terms of debate in Wales and across the UK.

The commonest argument offered by advocates of votes at 16 is that a later voting age is inconsistent with the rights and responsibilities that young people gain earlier in their lives.  They  point out that we can marry, join the army, or change our names at 16.  The principle of ‘no taxation without representation’ is often invoked: 16 and 17-year-olds are liable to pay tax, so should not be denied the vote.

When we delved into the evidence, however, we found such arguments to be inconclusive.  Young people acquire different rights and responsibilities at all sorts of ages.  They are liable for some taxes – such as VAT and inheritance tax – from birth.  At 16, they can marry or join the army only with parental consent.  Only from 18 can they enter a legally binding contract, buy tobacco, or get a tattoo.  There is no one age when we are recognised in law as adults.

Arguments about the compatibility of different rights and responsibilities therefore cannot ground a decision on the voting age.  Rather, what matters is how the voting age affects the level and quality of participation in electoral politics.  Everyone wants to boost democratic engagement.  If lowering the voting age would help with that, it is worth doing.

Political scientists have argued for some time that 18 is probably the worst possible franchise age.  Many people at that age are away from home for the first time, so are detached from networks that might encourage them to vote.  They may be finding their feet in new environments and struggle to look beyond their own lives to the wider world.  At 16, by contrast, people are more likely to be living at home with parents or others who vote.  They are also in education or training, which creates opportunities for them to learn in structured ways about politics and the choices available to them.  We are therefore more likely to turn out when we first get the vote if that happens when we are 16 or 17 than if it happens when we are 18 or 19.

And, crucially, whether we vote the first time we are allowed to has a big impact on whether we vote later on in life.  Once we develop the habit of voting, we are likely to stick to it.  If we fail to develop that habit early on, we are unlikely to develop it later.

Until recently, much of this thinking was theoretical: nowhere had actually lowered the voting age to 16, so we could not see the effects in the real world.  But that has now changed.  Scotland, Austria, and a number of other jurisdictions have enfranchised 16 and 17-year-olds.  The evidence emerging from these cases is consistent: provided schools work with their pupils to help them understand the choices they face, 16 and 17-year-olds vote in higher numbers than do 18–24-year-olds.  Electoral Commission research suggests, for example, that turnout in the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 – the first vote in the UK with the lower voting age – was 75 per cent for 16 and 17-year-olds, but only 54 per cent for 18–24-year-olds.  In the 2017 Scottish local elections, these numbers were 51 per cent and 39 per cent.  We cannot yet gauge the long-term effects, but the evidence so far is positive.

Furthermore, where they have been given the vote and where suitable citizenship education is in place, 16 and 17-year-olds are just as well informed about politics as are slightly older voters.

This makes a strong case for votes at 16.  That case will become stronger still if the voting age is lowered for Welsh local government elections: lowering the voting age only for the elections that young people are least likely to turn out for would be a bad move.

A proviso to all this is important: the positive effects of lowering the voting age are clear – both in theory and in reality – only when the change is accompanied by high-quality citizenship education in schools and other places of learning.  This should cover not just dry institutional structures, but also discussion of the real choices that elections offer.  Teaching such material well and without bias is hard, so specialist training for teachers is needed.  Given that the benefits of such teaching are clear anyway, however, this is no argument against change.

Given suitable citizenship education, lowering the voting age would place Wales at the vanguard of an emerging democratic wave.  It would help boost the breadth and the quality of participation in democratic politics.  That would be a very welcome step indeed.

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Alan Renwick is Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit and University College London and a member of the Expert Panel on Assembly Electoral Reform.

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