Now is the time for votes at 16
The starting gun is about to be fired for an election contest with profound consequences for the future of the nation. But almost a million of our compatriots – those aged 16 and 17 - will be voiceless. It is now time to put what John Stuart Mill called the ‘public trust’ of the vote into the hands of these young citizens.
Inevitably, there will be strong opposition to an extension of the franchise – just as there was four decades ago, when the voting age was dropped from 21 to 18, and eight decades ago, when women won the vote on a par with men. But the arguments against reform are diminishing by the year.
The key question is this: do 16 year-olds have the necessary maturity and competence to responsibly play their part in a democratic society? The answer to that question, today, is yes. The age of sexual consent is now 16 for both heterosexual and same-sex couples. In 2006, the Government lowered the age at which an individual can become a company director to 16, with all the attendant legal consequences. Over the last decade, 16 and 17 year olds have paid more than £500 million in tax.
They can serve in the military, and 4,500 currently do so; old enough to take a bullet, but not to cast a ballot. Both the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly have signalled a desire to lower the voting age, but are blocked by Westminster. This year, Scottish 16 years olds will vote for the new Health Boards. The minimum age for sitting as a Member of Parliament was reduced from 21 to 18 in 2006 without a murmur of dissent. If we are happy for 18 year-olds to be our legislators, it seems reasonable to suppose that 16 year olds could help to elect them.
Contrary to the fears of politicians that younger voters would be detached, lowering of the voting age could reduce political apathy: there is good evidence that the younger a person gets into the voting habit the more likely they are to keep it. When Austria gave the vote to 16 and 17 year olds, turnout in that age group in the 2008 elections was the same as other age groups.
Of course, votes at 16 is but part of a whole package of reforms necessary for the modernisation of our democracy. And there is no question that the politics of a new Reform Act will be difficult. But the moral imperative is clear. It is time to give young adults the ultimate badge of adulthood – the vote.
Read the Demos briefing paper on votes at 16, The New Frontier or watch a short video here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sC3abJ_-N7I