Almost all countries have a minimum voting age of eighteen or older. There are a very few exceptions (sixteen, for instance, in Guernsey, Jersey, the Isle of Man and Scotland – the latter only for independence referendums, Scottish Parliament elections and local authority elections). Interestingly, the UK was one of the earliest to reduce the age to eighteen (in 1970). But now the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the SNP want the age to be reduced again to sixteen. I wonder whether that is a good idea.
Various reasons are advanced by politicians for their stances on the minimum voting age. but the reality, of course, is that those who advocate a reduction do so because they calculate it would lead to their getting more votes and those who oppose the reduction (now only the Conservatives) do so because they assume that most children would be likely to vote for left wing parties.
Let us try to put aside considerations of electoral advantage (always difficult for politicians) and look at the other arguments for and against a reduction in the voting age.
The commonest argument in favour of a reduction is that elections decide the futures of sixteen and seventeen year olds and they should therefore be allowed to take part in them. Gordon Brown was one of the first serious politicians to advocate votes at sixteen, though he thought the reform should only take place if all children of sixteen and over were given “citizenship” (code for importance of voting Labour) lessons. Other, more recent, proponents of reform generally tend to argue that once young people become sixteen they have a natural maturity and can be trusted to vote responsibly without teachers telling them where they should put their crosses on ballot papers.
Opponents of a reduction tend to argue that schoolchildren are not usually sufficiently experienced and mature to take part in national elections. They point to the fact that, at least in England (not in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), sixteen and seventeen year olds are now required to be in full time education. So they are not taxpayers and will not enter the real world until they are at least eighteen.
Now, it does have to be said that there is an element of unreality in the arguments on both sides. Many of us who have teenage children find it difficult to picture all those mature sixteen year olds who will give serious thought to how they should vote. On the other hand, being sane and sensible is not a requirement for voters over the age of eighteen. A great many existing voters choose for whom they will vote in a thoroughly irrational way. And, even if our own children are wholly irresponsible and foolish, most of us do know other people’s children who seem to be extraordinarily mature and wise.
My own instinct is that the present arrangements are probably about right. The line has to be drawn somewhere and eighteen strikes me as being a reasonable age for people to start voting. But maybe I am unduly swayed by being the father of three teenagers (though two of them will be able to vote in June – one of them three days after his eighteenth birthday). And perhaps this is a pointless debate (because teenagers probably wouldn’t bother to vote anyway). I will be interested in your views.