After the Welsh Assembly made the decision in June to allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in its 2021 election, a debate has begun over whether it is time to lower the legal voting age for UK General Elections.
There are concerns about the maturity of young people at that age, as well as question marks over how engaged they would be in the process. However, major social events in recent years have shown that younger generations are becoming more and more politically active.
Currently in UK general elections, one must be at least 18 years old in order to vote. Yet, political issues and policies surrounding education, apprenticeships and the environment have a major effect on 16 and 17-year olds.
The youth are becoming more political
Critics make the case that at some point, a line needs to be drawn when it comes to setting the voting age. But 16 be should be where that benchmark is set.
Once you turn 16, you are eligible to pay taxes, join the armed forces, get married and start an apprenticeship. These are all areas of great responsibility, yet an influence in the outcome of elections which will affect you is still denied. Consequently, there are currently more discussions about young people than with them.
Generation Z have been raised in a world of fear. Talk of recessions, the threat of terrorism, the global climate emergency and most recently COVID-19 have dominated the headlines of our childhood. Consequently, we have been forced to acknowledge and form opinions on key issues at a young age. Mass protests and demonstrations have been a by-product of the volatile political climate, and participation has not been exclusively over-18.The Extinction Rebellion and BLM protests have shown that the youth of today are more engaged in politics than ever before, despite the democratic restrictions we face.
Lowering the voting age would not be without precedent in Europe. Austria has long allowed 16-year-olds to vote in national elections, with promising results. Their voter turnout statistics show that the 16 - 17 age group are more than willing to engage in national politics.
Scotland followed suit in 2013, passing a bill which set 16 as the minimum voting age for the nation’s upcoming Independence Referendum. Interestingly, the voter turnout for the 16 - 17 age group was 75%, placing it higher than the turnout for the 18 - 24 age group (54%). This indicates that people under the age of 18 are willing to participate in the democratic process, if they are given the opportunity.
What would be the impact?
Lowering the voting age would introduce a new, large voting bloc, containing some who may not have any political knowledge and yet could sway the election results. Due to this, some (such as Conservative MP David Lidington) claim that people under the age of 18 lack 'sufficient maturity and responsibility' to participate in elections. Yet, this concern can quite easily be combatted through the introduction of compulsory political education at GCSE Level. This would allow young people in schools to become more aware of the mechanics of British politics (i.e. Political Parties, the Electoral System, Parliament etc) an adjustment to the education system which is long overdue.
In addition, lowering the voting age would encourage more young people to engage in nuanced political debate about issues which affect them, creating generations of intelligent critical thinkers. There could be an opportunity to trial this in the local council elections in England. If successful, a move like this would lead to a more diverse and inclusive democratic process.
If the voting age were lowered, other measures such as comprehensive political education would need to be introduced, resulting in a more engaged and aware youth.
So much of government policy affects schools as well as the future of young people in them. Why not give some of the older pupils, many of whom already engage in politics, the chance to have their say?