These are extracts of a chapter from a new book out last week, Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box, edited by Philip Cowley and Robert Ford. The chapter is called “The policy few people want remains irresistible: lowering the voting age” and is written by Andrew Russell.
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The voting age is one of the few elements of the constitution that most voters know and support. The Hansard Society’s Audit of Political Engagement shows better knowledge of the voting age than any other aspect of political awareness. Electoral Commission surveys have found the public firmly against lowering the voting age, with even a small majority of the principal beneficiaries – those aged 15 to 18 – against it. The YCC reported similar levels of hostility from the public and only lukewarm support among those aged 16 to 17. A 2013 YouGov survey revealed that 60 per cent of the public are still against lowering the voting age.
Yet the movement towards reform seems irresistible. The Lib Dems, SNP, Plaid Cymru, Greens and now Labour have all moved to support votes at sixteen. There have been several attempts to bring laws to reduce the voting age in Westminster and the enfranchisement of 16- and 17-year-olds in the Scottish Independence Referendum makes further reform likely.
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But if you think there is a raft of rights gained at 16 making an overwhelming case for enfranchisement, think again.
Lord Adonis recently repeated many of the most familiar claims: “Given that 16-year-olds are judged old enough to leave home, to marry, to lead an independent life, and even join the Army, it is hard to argue in the modern age that they shouldn’t also have the vote”. However, a rudimentary fact check shows that each of Lord Adonis’s claims is fallacious.
Very few 16- and 17-year-olds leave home nowadays (ONS figures show more than 90 per cent of them lived with parents in 2012) and those that do must rely on someone aged 18 or over to sign a tenancy agreement for them.
According to the latest official figures, 92 per cent of 16- to 17-year-olds now stay in education. Furthermore, the English law raising the Participation Age means that from 2015 young people must stay in education or training tied to formal educational qualifications until aged 18, which will further reduce the proportion of eco- nomically active and tax-paying 16- to 17-year-olds.
The “no taxation without representation” mantra is often used in support of votes at 16 but high tax thresholds and poor youth wages mean under one-tenth of under-18s actually earn enough to pay income tax. Anyway, why single out direct taxation? The Boston Tea Party protested about indirect tax; and indirect taxation applies to all consumers whether eight, 12, 16 or 78.
Those under 18 need parental permission to marry in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Moreover the number of young marriages has fallen dramatically over 50 years. In England and Wales in 1959 there were 184 weddings of boys, and 3,973 marriages involving girls, aged sixteen. In 2009, there were just 18 weddings of boys, and 88 of girls aged 16.
The Protocol of the UN Convention of the Human Rights of the Child means armed forces volunteers are kept out of active service until 18. Recruitment at 16 (but only with parental permission) continues but this seems a very good argument for raising the age for enlisting rather than lowering the voting age.
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Perhaps the political class sees the possibility of electoral advantage? Harold Wilson’s government felt that reducing the voting age from 21 to 18 in 1969 would benefit them – unless young Scots turned to the SNP. Maybe it’s difficult to deny the claims of an organised and connected set of people who are continually said to be the future of the parties themselves. The Votes@16 coalition is certainly engaged but as the YCC concluded they might not accurately represent the constituency they speak for – the distance between the views of engaged and disengaged youth is enormous and growing.
The process of lowering the voting age is hard to stop once it has begun. Public opinion, international experiments and a move to enshrine 18 as the age of adulthood ought to have consigned the idea of lowering the voting age to the political junkyard but yet it is still gathering momentum. It may happen because it’s cheap, looks radical and encouraged by some organisations poised to benefit from the change.
Andrew Russell is professor of politics at the University of Manchester. Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box was published by Biteback Publishing last week. Buy it here.