There is a whole section of society, cut off from democracy and unable to make any kind of impact in the country that they do so much for, ridiculed as “mentally unfit” and dismissed as having greater concerns than voting. 100 years ago, that silenced group was women. In today’s society, it is not women who have no mandate; but the discrimination concerns age rather than gender. Young teenagers of 16 and 17 years old are routinely told to ‘put up and shut up’ by politicians who repeatedly batter at our future and our finances, while simultaneously being told to get off the couch and do something for the country that denies us our basic democratic right. There are many reasons why this has to end now:
First of all, this is not a radical new idea brought up by a negligible fringe group of politicians. Young teenagers can already vote in elections in Brazil, Austria, and in some German elections. 16 and 17-year-olds voting is supported by the Green Party, some Labour MP’s, and crucially, the Scottish National Party. The SNP, after taking power in the Scottish Parliament, secured votes for 16-year-olds in the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum, and 16-year-olds (including myself) were given the vote in this year’s Scottish elections. This wasn’t ignored, as many sceptics believed it would be. Young Scots voted in droves, which was reflected in the results, as the youth-friendly parties (Green Party, SNP) all had a successful election. 16 and 17-year-olds actually produced a better rate of voter turnout than 18-24-year-olds.
Taking the voter turnout into account, there is evidence that a younger voting age could reinvigorate youth politics. The higher number of young people voting could mean that the youth vote actually matters to politicians and isn’t simply ignored as soon as the election is over (cough, Nick Clegg, cough). Young people could finally have their interests and concerns listened to, and their vote could massively influence parliament. For example, since youths are more likely to support electoral reform as well as more socialist policies, the Green Party, Labour, and the SNP could have a much larger stake in parliament than they already do; resulting in a democracy skewed less towards the Conservative-voting Daily Mail/Express/Sun readers in Middle England, which is what, unfortunately, we are currently stuck with.
The fact that parliament is so dominated by politicians scrabbling for the middle-aged/pensioner vote has left almost hilarious inconsistencies in the laws surrounding what 16-year-olds can and can’t do. For example, a 16-year-old could, by law, have sex, get married and start a family right now if they wanted to. But, rather strangely this hypothetical 16-year-old can’t watch pornography until they are 18. Because presumably it would be morally wrong to prevent somebody who can have actual sex from watching other people have sex? Another obvious contradiction is that a 16-year-old can drink beer or cider in a pub as long as they aren’t buying it. An entirely pointless law that really does nothing to hinder underage drinking; but satisfies the moral crusaders who clutch at their pearls whenever the words “underage” and “drinking” are mentioned in the same sentence. These laws aren’t in place to help young people’s health, they are there to satisfy moral conservatives.
16-year-olds, who can claim benefits, access school records, work for a wage and join the army; are left out of any conversation that could affect them or their occupation, one of the most flagrant miscarriages of justice in our modern society. If 16-year-olds had the vote, young people would finally get a say in matters which can massively affect their lifestyle.
Let’s examine some of the arguments against 16-year-olds being allowed to vote: One of the prime arguments is that “16-year-olds aren’t mentally ready to vote”. Aside from being a sweeping generalisation, this hypothetical person seems to forget that some adults aren’t mentally ready to vote either. Who would you rather have at the ballot box: me, the 16-year-old author of this article, or 28-year-old Dave, who follows Neo-Nazism and spends his time verbally abusing prominent women on Twitter? Another rather weak argument made is that “16-year-old wouldn’t use their vote”. This can be statistically disproven, but imagine that, for whatever reason, it can’t be. Even if some 16-year-olds don’t vote, why should those who want to participate be denied from voting? If that is your argument, why should we have elections at all, given only 60-70% of people vote in General Elections anyway? Just scrap the entire democratic system, because clearly, not enough people care to make it worthwhile!
Julia Hartley-Brewer’s argument, which was featured in this year’s Scottish Higher paper, was “if we give 16-year-olds the vote, soon 8-year-olds will be demanding it”. This is an example of the extremely basic slippery slope fallacy that was used 100 years ago in the debate against women voting, and was also used against gay marriage. It’s a reactionary and alarmist argument that pays no heed to logic and tries to invoke a fear of progress by comparing it to absurdities. It is clear that there is no good argument against 16-year-olds voting. The current arguments all rely on insulting young teenagers’ intelligence, as well as trying to invoke fear of constitutional change.
Having assessed the weaknesses of the arguments against, it appears obvious that 16-year-olds should have a say in general elections. It appears absurd to deny young people the vote when it has already been demonstrated that there is no adequate reason to deny them their hand in the democratic process. Most importantly, the extension of the franchise would bring about genuine parliamentary and electoral reform, which this country appears in desperate need of.
Words by Gabriel Rutherford