In a world where 16-year-olds had the vote…

Image“A man without a vote is man without protection”

-Lyndon B. Johnson

Last week during a backbench motion, a group of MPs voted for the voting age to be lowered from 18 to 16- and passed it by a majority of 73 votes. However, since the Conservative Party opposes the move, the result is not binding on the government and has not yet amounted to any legislation. The move has been backed by both the Labour and Liberal Democrat Parties for a long time, and more recently, Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond announced that 16-year-olds would be able to vote in his planned referendum on Scottish Independence. So it seems that politicians across the UK are looking for change in the voting age.

I was recently in a debate about this very question: whether 16-year-olds should have the right to vote. Many of the arguments made there- like many of the arguments made by politicians- have been based around the principles of the vote. On principal, 16-year-olds should have the right to vote because the decisions made by governments directly affect them. Because they have as much of a right to have their voices heard as 18-year-olds do. Because 16-year-olds are autonomous beings who should be able to choose what happens to them in a democratic society. To name just a few.

But I’m neither going to talk about the principled arguments, for or against, in this post, nor am I going to tell you whether or not I think the voting age should be changed. I’m going to discuss the reality, i.e. the immediate political consequences. Putting aside what we should do or what we would like to change, what would really happen if we lowered the voting age to 16?

The reality is: not very much. We would like to think that lowering the voting age would trigger some sort of political renaissance, where 16-year-olds are suddenly motivated to head down to their libraries and spend hours researching the positions of all the candidates, reading their manifestos back to front, highlighter pens and all. It is true that many 16-year-olds will embrace their newly found right- I myself shall seize the opportunity- but the situation I described above is unlikely to happen. 16-year-olds are busy people and many of them are fairly apathetic towards politics, as are a significant proportion of the current voting age population. There is little evidence to suggest that lowering the voting age will increase voter turn-out or general political interest; on the contrary, it could be that turn-out as an overall percentage of the voting population will decrease. Turn-out amongst the 18-24 year-old age group is the lowest of any group. So it appears that the right to vote is not one which is eagerly awaited by British teenagers.

Another argument often made by proponents of lowering the voting age is that this would incentivise politicians to target more of their policies towards young people, thus providing better representation of their interests. It’s true that in the years immediately after the voting age being lowered, we may see policies targeted directly at young people and the issues affecting them appearing on party manifestos. We may even see the emergence of a stronger and more vocal youth lobby which has a greater influence within parliament. However, the crux of this argument rests on the assumption that those who have the vote will vote, which we know can’t be counted on. And once politicians realise that targeting young people directly isn’t going to have as significant an effect on election outcomes as they would have hoped, the incentive to represent them better might just disappear.

However, the upcoming decision over whether 16-year-olds should have the vote shouldn’t rest on political realities, or rather, speculations and predictions made by analysts. After all, it’s not the job of politicians to provide guesswork and estimations about the strength of their constituents’ political convictions; it’s to represent them as well as the country at large. If we’re going to support lowering the voting age, it should be because we are sufficiently convinced by the moral arguments. Or to put it differently, it’s because of what we believe should happen, rather than what we believe would happen.


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