Why it’s too soon to give 16-year-olds the vote

The recent impasse in Westminster has given fresh impetus to calls for votes at 16 in all UK elections, following the precedent already set in Scotland. As Ben Ramanauskas argues here, there is indeed a strong case for extending the franchise. But I’m still unconvinced that it would be right to do so now.

The reality is that most 16 and 17-year-olds are still children living at home and going to school. In my view, there is enough pressure on them already. Just imagine the online barrage of political advertising that they would face (some think that even adults can’t be trusted to see through a dodgy Facebook post). Children are also more likely to be susceptible to parental influence to vote one way or another.

It is important to be clear too about what young people can already legally do at 16. Advocates of lowering the voting age often say that 16 is the threshold at which you can marry or join the army. But in England, at least, you would still require the consent of your parents or guardians, meaning that you cannot take these decisions independently, and you would not be eligible to fight in combat roles.

Ben makes the similar point that at 16 or 17 we give many young people the responsibility of choosing their A-levels (and I’d add universities too), which can go on to have significant effects on their later life. But these are also decisions that are usually taken jointly with parents and schools.

At 16, the law does allow you to leave home or school, work up to 40 hours per week, become a company director, and have consensual sex with someone who is also at least 16. However, these are still not actions that society would usually encourage at such a young age. And in England, a young person must be in some form of part-time education or training until they’re 18.

The obligation to pay taxes is frequently mentioned too, but I don’t think it is that relevant. It is correct that 16 is the threshold for paying national insurance contributions (NICs) if you earn enough, and for receiving some state benefits. It is also the age at which you start to qualify for the national minimum wage.

But, in general, your liability for taxes depends on your income and expenditure, not your age. A successful child actor, for example, could pay a large amount of income tax. Everyone, regardless of age, pays indirect taxes, such as those on sugary drinks, and the same rates of VAT on the goods and services that they buy. In principle, this might include an 8-year-old.

It is surely more significant that a large number of other rights and obligations only kick in at 18. For example, you have to wait until 18 to take out a mortgage, credit card or personal loan, serve on a jury, become a police officer, fight in the armed forces, get married without permission, see certain films, buy alcohol, tobacco, fireworks or a gun, or gamble.

Of course, 18 is to some extent arbitrary, and there is no reason why all age thresholds have to be the same. There might be a lower starting point for activities which are less likely to harm the individual or others. 

Some, however, argue that the voting age should be lowered to 16 while simultaneously making the case that the age for buying alcohol and tobacco should be kept at 18 (or even raised) because drinking and smoking are dangerous activities. But if you can’t trust a child to make a relatively simple health choice on their own, why allow them to decide the future of the entire country?

Nor do I think the views of young teens are being suppressed. There are many other ways to engage effectively in politics at an early age, without having the vote until you are older. It’s a myth that people only vote on the basis of their own narrow self-interests. Adults do think of what’s best for others, including their children, grandchildren and the country more generally. They can therefore still be influenced by what young people have to say.

Put it this way: would anyone seriously argue that politicians care less about knife crime because the victims are often too young to vote? Or would anyone deny that Greta Thunberg’s voice is being heard? (Some might also suggest that her campaign illustrates why children should not be allowed to vote, but that’s a discussion for another day.)

Above all, it would only make sense to lower the voting age once everyone involved has had more opportunity to prepare. This means more investment in citizenship education and ensuring that young people hear a wider range of views. For example, I’d like to see a module on the track record of socialism in other countries.

Similar arguments apply to any repeat of the 2016 EU referendum. This would already be controversial enough without changing the rules on voter eligibility at the same time. What’s more, many MPs are claiming that they themselves still can’t make an informed choice on Brexit after more than three years of parliamentary debate. Why do they think 16-year-old children would be in any better position?

What, then, about Scotland? As it happens, I do see a stronger case for a lower voting age in local or regional elections and some (relatively simple) referendums. But I do not believe that the Scottish precedent outweighs the other arguments.

In summary, it’s surely not unreasonable to argue that people below a certain age are much less likely to be mature enough to vote. Classroom teaching and exposure to social media are no quick substitute for experience of the real world. Otherwise, why don’t we lower the voting age to, say, 14, or allow everyone to do anything they want at 16, including buy cigarettes, drive a bus, be sent to an adult prison or die for their country? We have to draw lines somewhere. 

By all means, let’s do more groundwork for a lower voting age in future. For now, though, the threshold for the most important UK elections and referendums should remain at 18.

Written by Julian Jessop

Julian Jessop is an independent economist.
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