National Democracy Week – Why 16 year olds should get the vote

6 Jul 2018

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Following on from our recent feature article, in which we looked at the example of voting at 16 in the Isle of Man,[1] we provide a small argument for why we should recognise young people as a part of the democratic process.

There are the usual lines; 16 year olds should have the vote because they can claim benefits, join the army, make a family, become a business director, get married and leave home. And of course there is the classic liberal stance that there should be ‘no taxation without representation’. The piece aims to argue for the vote for 16 year olds outside of these areas, and rooted within a contemporary context based on recent political trends.

The past few years have seen some notable advances in democratic interest and engagement; in part due to some momentous referenda; Scottish Independence and Brexit, and a General Election to help determine the course of the latter.

An incredible 84.6% of the electorate turned out for the Scottish Independence Referendum (which included 16-17 year olds), and 77.2% for Brexit, followed by 68.7% for the latest General Election. Taking General Elections alone, the UK has seen an improvement in voter turnout since the turn of the millennium.

More pertinently; Brexit was painted in some sectors as a young vs. old vote, and the 2017 general election was seen as a game changer for the role of young people in elections. Over a million under-25s made voter registration applications, 34% of the total, in the run-up to the 2017 general election. This helped increase the size of the electoral register to 46.8 million electors – which is a record.

Nevertheless, young people continue to be under-represented in our democratic processes including on the electoral register. YouGov estimated that at the 2017 general election, only 57% of 18 to 19-year-olds voted compared with 84% of those aged 70 and over.[2]

Then, in May 2018 analysis by the British Election Study further dispelled the ‘youthquake’ myth, showing that it wasn’t as seismic as first reported, putting the turnout figure for those aged 18-24 at somewhere around the 43% mark – more of a tremor.[3] So whilst youth engagement and interest appears to be at its highest in 25 years, turnout remains comparatively low, especially compared with other European countries. Therefore, in arguing for the voting age to be reduced we should firstly mitigate potential reasons for low voting amongst younger persons.

Firstly, a potential reason for a relatively low youth turnout in 2017 was the timing of the general election; 8th June – there would have been a reasonable proportion of students who were registered to vote at ‘home’ but who would have been unable to due to being at university.[4]

A very simple solution could be to incorporate some form of online voting platform, such as that in Estonia, which has been receiving online votes for elections since 2005. Australia’s state of New South Wales allows voters with impaired vision, other disabilities, those in rural areas, and those not present in the state on election day to vote online or via telephone in state general elections. It is possible.

Secondly; democratic incentive. In a 2009 book on youth participation in politics across Europe, the main reason given for why many young people stay away from electoral participation is that they feel that political parties do not address them.[5]

Compounding this latter mitigation has been the fact that without the 16 – 17 vote, and with traditionally low youth engagement amongst 18 – 24 year olds, it has tended to be more prudent for political parties to address voters that have more voting ‘clout’ when it comes to popular wide-scale issues; as they traditionally had made up a much larger share of the registered and voting electorate. This creates a cyclical situation whereby political parties fail to address the needs of young voters, because they do not represent enough votes, and even more young people then abstain from voting because political parties do not speak of what matters to them.

As we have written previously on these pages, there are signs that is changing. The referenda mentioned above obviously had large and potentially irreversible, implications, and Corbyn’s labour had a stronger youth emphasis than many previous manifestos. Furthermore, the Conservative response to unexpected Labour gains has been to devise a strategy for increasing their share of the youth vote.[6]

Allowing 16 years olds the vote would subsequently go some way to furthering this recent momentum by extending the pool of voters and thus necessitating a shift in party policies towards the newly enfranchised, thus giving more focus to young people.

To do this would also give them a sense of trust and a stake in society at a time when intergenerational inequalities and austerity policies are at danger of producing outcomes that would disaffect their political appetite and cause practiced apathy. We should enable 16 – 17 year olds to at least influence those decisions that affect their life chances.

Thirdly, the vote matters to young people, and lowering the voting age has topped the billing in 4 of the UK Youth Parliament agendas since 2011, Agendas which are informed by the ‘Make your Mark’ ballots*. [7]

Fourthly, whilst many decry young voter turnout at present, we cannot extrapolate how 16-17 year olds may vote when compared to the 18- 24 bracket. In the Scottish Independence Referendum, 16-17 year olds were able to vote for the first time, and whilst the dominant trend of lower voter registration amongst younger age groups continued, there was still a marked turnout of 75% amongst 16-17 year olds, the equivalent figure was 54% for 18 – 24 year olds.[8] This somewhat negates those who state that turnout would be negligible.

Furthermore, research done into voting patterns amongst 16 – 17 year olds in Austria indicates that those who vote in that age group are politically savvy, consider multiple views and access a variety of political analysis from a wider source base than any other age group before voting; clearly they do not ‘dilute’ the democratic process through ignorance and naivety as some claim.[9]

*** Editorial note ***

We erroneously misrepresented the way in which ‘Make your Mark’ ballot works; a large part of it is delivered through schools where a whole-school approach takes place, thus it is not just the self-selecting politically engaged who are consulted.


[1] [accessed 29th June 2018]

[2] [accessed 21st May 2018]

[3] [accessed 22 May 2018]

[4] [accessed 21 May 2018]

[5] Bruter, Michael & Harrison, Sarah. (2009). The future of our democracies? Young party members in 6 European democracies. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, UK

[6] [accessed 29 June 2018]

[7] [accessed 22 May 2018]

[8] [accessed 22 May 2018]

[9] [accessed 29 June 2018]