Jess Blair explains why a new Bill introduced today to extend the voting age is a good thing for Wales but warns more reforms are needed.
Devolution to Wales has meant that we do a number of things differently from other parts of the UK. From having distinct policies around tuition fees for Welsh students heading to university, to bringing forward groundbreaking legislation around organ donation and wellbeing, over the last 20 years we’ve seen real divergence from the kind of policies we see across the Severn Bridge.
Today heralded the latest development, with the Assembly Commission introducing the Senedd and Elections (Wales) Bill, which is set to extend the vote to 16 and 17 year olds in Wales for the first time.
Extending the right to vote to 16 and 17 year olds for Welsh parliamentary elections is a sensible recognition of the fact that Wales’ young people are active, informed and interested in politics – and they deserve to be heard by our political institutions. This is something we at ERS have been campaigning for over a number of years and are delighted to see taking place.
As we’ve seen in Scotland, where the right to vote was extended in 2015, extending the franchise has resulted in a higher turnout among 16 and 17 year olds than their 18 to 24 year old counterparts, and helped spur a revival in political engagement across the board. As we’ve seen from around the world, If you vote once, you are more likely to vote in future. So as 18 year olds who don’t vote become 50 year olds who don’t vote, 16 and 17 year olds who do vote will continue to vote as they age.
The introduction of votes at 16 in Wales creates an opportunity to reinvigorate the way we teach politics in our schools. Last year we ran Our Voices Heard, a project which spoke to nearly 200 young people about political education. That work taught us that young people are interested in politics, and that they want better information about how decisions are made and who makes them.
180 years on from the Chartist Newport Rising, this legislation is a critical step in the process of bringing new life into Welsh democracy, but it shouldn’t be the last.
An expert panel which reported at the end of 2017, chaired by Professor Laura McAllister, recommended a raft of other reforms to go alongside the extension of the right to vote. We have yet to see these other reforms progress but they are fundamental to the future success of the Senedd. Chief among these is a larger assembly – with Assembly Members representing more voters than ever, it is time for the Senedd to be properly resourced.
The introduction of this Bill today is a brilliant step forward in Wales’ devolution journey and shows how we can do things differently for the benefit of the people of Wales. Because of this legislation, around 70,000 young people will gain the right to vote at the next Assembly election, scheduled for 2021.
Whether that Assembly will be properly equipped to represent them is still to be determined – and it’s critical we don’t forget that.
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