The Labour Party’s attempt to amend the Parliamentary General Election Act of 2019 and extend the franchise just weeks before an election caused a resurgence of interest in whether 16 and 17 year olds should be allowed to vote.
In the short but heated debate that followed supporters of ‘votes at 16’ rehearsed familiar arguments: the value of promoting political engagement, the importance of young people having a stake in the future, the inconsistency of paying taxes without a say in how those taxes are spent.
Similarly, opponents put forward an equally well practiced case: the relative immaturity and political ignorance of 16 and 17 year olds, the incongruity of allowing teenagers to vote in an election before they can buy a pint of beer.
But what do the British public think about votes at 16? And is changing the franchise in this way as revolutionary as it might seem?
In the most recently published British Social Attitudes Survey, we asked the public ‘which of these comes closest to your view about the age at which people should be able to vote in a general election in Britain?’ letting them select 16, 18, 21 or ‘can’t choose’ (how we ask matters a lot).
Public opinion is mixed: the majority (60 per cent) think we should leave things as they are, but there is also fairly strong support for changing the voting age — in both directions. Nineteen per cent of the public think 16 and 17 year olds should be allowed to vote, but 16 per cent say we should raise the voting age to 21.
Unsurprisingly, views on votes at 16 are strongly correlated with age. Thirty-two per cent of 18-24 year olds support lowering the voting age, compared to just 7 per cent of people who are 65 or over. Raising the voting age to 21 is unpopular with our youngest age group (though a small minority are supportive), while nearly a quarter of those aged 65 or over think older is better when it comes to voting in general elections.
Attitudes also vary by party identification. Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters are more likely than Conservative supporters to say 16, Conservative supporters are more likely to say 21. Here the parties are in line with the views of their base: extending the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds is official party policy for Labour, Liberal Democrats, SNP and others.
And across Britain the public’s views are not uniform. Respondents in Scotland are significantly more positive, with 30 per cent supporting votes at 16 compared with 18 per cent of the population in England. Which leads us neatly to the question of whether votes at 16 is as revolutionary as it sounds.
In 2013, the Scottish Government changed the law to allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote in the independence referendum, and then in 2015 unanimously voted to allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote in local and national elections. In Wales, the Senedd and Elections (Wales) Bill is progressing smoothly through the legislative process, and is likely to result in Welsh 16 and 17 year olds having the right to vote in local and national elections by 2021.
Very soon therefore English and Northern Irish teenagers will have to wait to 18 to vote for their local and national representatives while their Scottish and Welsh counterparts are able to vote at 16 (although not in Westminster elections).
Arguing for extending the franchise may have been a long and uphill battle for the votes at 16 campaign and its supporters, but arguing for preserving such a fundamental divergence in the franchise across the United Kingdom may become equally, if not more difficult.
Opponents of lowering the voting age (and proponents of raising it) might do well to get comfortable with the idea of a younger voting public.
This blog post originally appeared in The Times