Electoral reform should be on the agenda – starting with votes at 16

The extension of the franchise is one of the most contentious issues in the field of constitutional reform – or at least it was before all the other ones cropped up.

The Scottish experience, where 16- and 17-year-olds participated enthusiastically and maturely in the 2014 independence referendum, lent credibility to those calling for a drop in the age threshold. Yet many remain unconvinced, insistent that voting is a privilege that should not be exercised before adulthood.

When examining the evidence, however, there are very few clear reasons to protest this reform. The current age, 18, is already a largely arbitrary criterion. Of course, we expect young people to wait until they’re 18 before they can drink alcohol or smoke, but we trust them to be sufficiently mature to be able to consent to sex at 16 and learn to drive at 17.

What’s more, we allow 16- and 17-year-olds to make important decisions which will have a huge impact on their lives and trust them to act rationally as they take into consideration advice from a wide range of sources as well as their own judgement. 

At 16, we give young people the responsibility of choosing their A-levels, which can go on to have significant effects on their trajectory in later life. At 17, they choose whether to go into work or higher education. If the latter, they have to choose a programme and an institution – some of the most significant decisions they are ever likely to make.

In more extreme examples, 16-year-olds are allowed to get married and enlist in the military. Of course, parental consent is required in these instances, but society still regards young people sufficiently mature and sensible to take these very important decisions.

One might argue that 16- and 17-year-olds should not be able to vote because they don’t have sufficient wisdom or life experience to be given such an important responsibility. But at what point does one gain sufficient wisdom or life experience? How can we tell? Should we perhaps move away from democracy and instead embrace an epistocratic system? Again, what would the criteria be for who can vote – IQ, level of educational attainment, having gone to the right school or university? 

Then there are the many positive contributions that 16- and 17-year-olds make to our society. As previously mentioned, they are allowed to serve in the armed forces, keeping our country safe and risking their lives to defend us from harm. It was this argument which proved so successful in obtaining suffrage for women after the first world war – they contributed to the war effort, so why should they be denied a say in who governs the country? 

And let us not forget the small issue of taxation without representation. As any American is likely to tell you, state confiscation of private earnings is widely considered poor form when those being taxed are unable to voice their grievances through the ballot box. Under 18s can pay income tax, VAT, road tax, and almost any other tax you care to name. How can it be fair to deny them the vote?

There is also evidence to suggest that denying 16- and 17-year–olds the vote is damaging engagement in politics. For example, some studies have shown that delaying when a person first votes decreases the likelihood that they will become a regular voter. Likewise, other studies have revealed that when the voting age has been lowered in certain areas, there has been an increase in voter turnout across all age groups.

Giving a voice to young people will also help to redress some of the intergenerational inequalities which are currently rife in the UK. Young people have experienced lower wages and stagnating living standards compared to generations before, and the vast majority are struggling with high rental costs and are unable to afford to own their own home. Older people are much more secure financially than younger people. 

Of course, these inequalities are not the fault of older people, and we should resist those who attempt to drive division between generations. Much of the blame should be levied at successive governments over the years, especially when it comes to housing, that have implemented and maintained a restrictive planning system which has increased house prices. However, allowing younger people to vote will allow their concerns to be heard and prompt politicians to act accordingly.

Given that another general election seems imminent, we should ensure that electoral reform is on the agenda. It will include questions as to whether we should adopt proportional representation, as suggested on this site by Matt Gillow, a compelling if not wholly convincing argument. Or, more controversially, the idea put forward by political theorist Jason Brennan, who has argued that only the informed should be allowed a say

Brennan’s argument, although superficially appealing, is one that I think should be rejected. Our system of representative democracy, in which we give MPs and peers great discretion in how they act based on their own reasoning and judgment, while ensuring that they remain accountable to the people, has historically served us well – even though it seems to be breaking down at the moment due to the Brexit crisis.

There is potentially a case for granting judges more power. Allowing independent legal and constitutional experts more power might be a way of getting out of the current quagmire, and would at least be a better guarantor of our fundamental rights than our current set-up.

We could also consider introducing age-weighted voting. Such a policy would involve giving more weight to an individual’s vote based on their age. This would not be to suggest that the votes or needs of older people are worthless but, as pointed out by Oxford philosopher William MacAskill, it would be much fairer in that every citizen would have equal voting rights, with voting power unequally distributed throughout their life.

Much of this is and should be subject to debate. However, there is a clear need for electoral reform, and allowing 16- and 17-year–olds to vote should be the starting point.

Written by Ben Ramanauskas

Ben Ramanauskas is a research economist at Oxford University.
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