The franchise in the UK has not been static through time and there have been some significant changes made to extend the numbers of people who can vote in elections. Notably, too, in Wales and Scotland 16-17 year olds can vote in elections for devolved bodies and in local elections. Therefore, it is natural to ask the question of whether 16-17 years olds should able to vote in General Elections in the UK?
How as the current age limit for voting at General Elections arrived at?
The current age limit has been in place since the Representation of the People’s Act (1969). This law lowered the voting age from the previous age of 21. The age of 21 had previously been in place since the 1695 in the Parliamentary Elections Act.
Where in Britain can 16 Year Olds Vote and what elections?
Since devolution it has been within the power of devolved institutions to decide on the voting age elections in their purview – including local elections. As it stands, this is the current situation across the UK:
UK General Elections – Voters must be 18.
English Local and Regional Elections – Voters must be 18.
Northern Irish Local and Regional Elections – Voters must be 18.
Scottish Parliamentary and Local Elections – The Scottish Parliament legislated through the Scottish Elections (Reduction of Voting Age) Act (2015). This lowered the voting age to 16. In addition, 16-17 Year Olds were also able to vote in the Scottish Independence Referendum (2014).
Welsh Parliamentary and Local Elections – The Welsh Parliament legislated through the Senedd and Elections (Wales) Act (2020) to lower their voting age to 16.
How common is it internationally to allow votes at 16?
International voting ages vary quite significantly but votes at 16 is unusual.
16 – Nine countries, including Scotland and Wales allow votes at 16. (The British Crown Dependencies of Guernsey, Isle of Man and Jersey also allow votes at 16).
17 – Four countries allow votes at 17: North Korea, Indonesia, Greece and East Timor.
20 – Four countries allow votes at 20: Bahrain, Cameroon and Nauru and Taiwan.
21 – Seven Countries allow votes at 21: Lebanon, Oman, Samoa, Singapore, Tokelau and Tonga.
18 – The remaining countries allow voting at 18, if they allow voting at all.
The average basic voting age internationally is: 18.03
There are some exceptions to this. For example, Slovenia and Serbia allows votes at 16 if you are employed.
What are the positions of the major political parties on votes at 16?
The different major parties have traditionally had differing positions on lowering the voting age to 16:
Conservatives – The Conservatives have traditionally been opposed to lowering the voting age to 16.
Labour – The Labour party have traditionally been in favour of lowering the voting age to 16. Indeed, it was included as a pledge in the 2019 manifesto.
Liberal Democrats – The Liberal Democrats have a long held policy agreement to lower the voting age to 16. Indeed, it has been a consistent manifesto pledge since 2001. However, it was not part of the Coalition Agreement, which may have been their best chance to get this into law.
What attempts have their been made to lower the voting age to 16?
Numerous attempts have been made to pass bills that would lower the voting age to 16, however, all have been Private Members Bills.
The most famous of these was Labour MP Jim McMahon’s 2017. In a stormy debate, arguments were made for both sides of the debate:
Jim McMahon: “This is not a party political issue. The way the debate has gone has been partisan, but the Bill is supported across the parties: it is supported by the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, the Green party, the Scottish National party and some Conservative Members who believe the time has now come to extend the franchise. If we educate young people in schools and give them the vote at 16, I am absolutely convinced they will carry the voting habit into later life. That will increase turnout and participation, and place a greater value on our democracy.”
Cat Smith: “If history has taught us anything, it is that our past is littered with bold actions, proud speeches and even lives lost to win and defend the right to vote. As we celebrate 100 years of women’s suffrage, we have an opportunity to reflect on how far we have come as a country and to look to extend the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds. The case has never been stronger. Within the United Kingdom, in Scotland, 16 and 17-year-olds can now vote in local elections, but a 16-year-old who votes in such an election this year would subsequently be denied a vote in a general election next year. That cannot be right.”
Bernard Jenkin: “Any voting age is somewhat arbitrary. However, there are strong arguments in favour of retaining the status quo, and the arguments in favour of lowering the voting age are, at best, somewhat muddled and inconsistent. A line must be clearly drawn somewhere and the present age of 18 is widely accepted across society, and, indeed, across the vast majority of countries in the world; only a tiny fraction of countries have a lower voting age than the United Kingdom.”
Kit Malthouse: “It is generally accepted that gambling is bad for young people, in recognition of the two stages of brain development in young people: the first prior to six, when 95% of the brain is formed, and the second during adolescence, when enormous changes take place and when we have to take extreme care over how young people develop. The science is with us on this. This is a period when the operation of the brain, people’s practice and habits, are formed. It is important that we look at that. It was decided some years ago that forbidding under-18s to gamble was desirable in order to inculcate and educate and to get their brains functioning in a way that meant they were less likely to do it in older age. The Bill would create the ridiculous situation whereby a young person could vote but not then place a wager on the outcome of the election in which they had just voted, which seems extraordinary.”
However, in the end, the motion was not even put to debate after it was filibustered by Conservative MPs leading to a ferocious outburst by McMahon.
What has the impact of votes at 16 been in Scotland and Wales?
In Scotland 16 and 17 year olds could first vote in the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum. It is estimated that around 75% of 16 and 17 year olds who had registered to vote consequently did so in the referendum. Notably, this was a higher turnout that those in the 18-24 bracket.
Since the passage of the Scottish Elections (Reduction of Voting Age) Act in 2015, 16 and 17 year olds have voted in significant number in Scottish Parliamentary elections. But, perhaps even more importantly, turnout in older age groups has gone up, indicating that earlier access to voting may create positive habits.
The Welsh Parliamentary Elections in 2021 saw the first time that 16 and 17 year olds could vote in Wales. Initial data by the Welsh Government was not strong and suggested only around 45% of 16 and 17 year olds in Wales registered to vote. However, further research has suggested that young people in Wales view Senedd elections as ‘second order’ elections and this 45% figure would be significantly higher for general elections.
What might be the arguments in favour of granting 16 year olds the vote?
Some of the arguments in favour of grating 16 years olds the vote may include:
The age of 16 already allows personal autonomy – Being 16 is already an age where people are granted more autonomy. At 16 you can consent to sexual relationships, become a parent and join the military (with parental consent). Therefore, it may be considered voting is well within their capability.
A 16 year old may pay tax – A 16 year old may be liable for taxation if the earn over their personal allowance of £12,570. If they are legally considered liable for taxation, they should therefore be considered eligible for having a say on how their taxes are spent. Otherwise, there exists the age-old problem of ‘taxation without representation’.
Voting is a human right – The right to vote is enshrined in the additional protocols of the European Convention of Human Rights to which Britain is a signatory. Whilst there must be some limits on the franchise, it may be argued that preventing 16 year olds from voting is a disproportionate violation of the spirit of the ECHR.
16 year olds have shown they will vote when given the chance – When 16 year olds have been given the vote they have shown that they will take that opportunity. In the Scottish Independence Referendum in 2014, a higher proportion 16-17 year olds turned out than 18-24 year olds. In addition, voting has been shown to be a habit that is reinforced when it starts earlier. Therefore, allowing 16 year olds to vote is benefical to wider turn-out.
Voting helps with political education – Voting helps with wider political education and helps people to engage with social issues. Recent governments have placed an emphasis on youth engagement, for instance through Cameron’s National Citizens Service. Allowing them to vote would help to engage them in the wider political process.
Allowing 16 year olds to vote would force politicians to consider youth issues – One of the problems with not allowing 16-17 year olds to vote is that politicians do not need to actively appeal to them. This can lead them to be seemingly not engaging with the issues that concern young people.
Young people have better expertise in some areas – There are lots of areas whereby young people may be able to offer much better expertise than older voters. For example, policies towards education, social media and youth projects. This expertise should be embraced.
15 Year Olds were able to vote for new Prime Ministers – Despite the Conservative Party actively opposing votes at 16, 15 Year old Conservative Party members can vote in Conservative Leadership Elections and did. It is hypocritical to say that 16 year olds are not qualified to vote in a General Election, but are qualified to choose the next Prime Minister.
What might the arguments be against granting 16 year olds the vote?
Some of the arguments against giving 16 year olds the vote may include:
Adulthood is reached at 18 – The age of adulthood in the UK is 18. Whilst some rights are bestowed before this, they are the exception to a very clear rule. It is at age 18 where young people are legally responsible for themselves and so this is where the voting age should remain.
Young people lack life experience – Young people lack the life experience which is essential in casting a considered vote.
Young people may be overly influenced by others – The vast majority of young people with live with their parents or guardians and will be in full-time education. It is therefore likely that there vote may be overly influenced by others. In addition, there is an argument that 16 year olds may be overly influenced by social media.
18 is the international norm – Votes at 18 is by far the most common international level. Indeed, the average international voting age is 18.03. There is no reason for Britain to divert from the international standard.
Opinion Polls suggest they should stay at 18 – Opinion poll tend to suggest that votes at 16 is seen to be appropriate. In a YouGov poll of 2017 51% opposed lowering the voting age to 16 whilst 26% supported it.
Votes at 16 is a divisive issues, however, a majority of parties in the UK Parliament are in favour of it. It is likely that if Labour win a future General Election it will pass into law. The arguments are complex and public opinion on the issue is also divided.
Franchise – The term for the collective group who currently have the right to vote.
Taxation without Representation – The concept that if someone is required to pay taxation they should also be allowed to vote for their representatives. Taxation without representation was a major cause of the American War of Independence.
ECHR – The European Convention of Human Rights, an international agreement to which Britain is a signatory.
Coalition Agreement – The Governing agreement reached between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in 2010 based on a negotiated amalgamation of their respective manifestos.