votes at 16
where we are
16- and 17-year-olds have the vote in Scotland and Wales, but not in England or Northern Ireland - and not for elections to Westminster.
- In 2015 Scottish Labour supported the Reduction of the Voting Age Bill in the Scottish Parliament which lowered the voting age to 16 for local elections in Scotland, and elections to Holyrood.
- In 2019 Welsh Labour passed the Local Government and Elections Bill in the Welsh Parliament which introduced votes at 16 in all future Welsh elections.
- As Prime Minister, Gordon Brown repeatedly signalled support for votes at 16, although his investigative commission presented an inconclusive report in 2009. By 2010, Labour committed to a free vote on the issue, and made an explicit committment to enfranchising 16-and 17-year-olds in its 2015, 2017 and 2019 manifestos (though never got the opportunity to implement the policy).
Meanwhile, the Conservative Party remains opposed to votes at 16 (though somewhat inconsistently, it allows Conservative Party members as young as 15 to vote for the Party leader).
arguments for votes at 16
These arguments fall into two main groups. The first is competence. Under UK law, people are deemed competent to make decisions in most areas of life by the age of 16. For example, 16 -year-olds:
- Can leave home and live independently
- Are allowed to consent (or withhold consent) for medical treatment
- Are held responsible for criminal acts
- Can join the army as a soldier
Psychologists define voting as a "cold cognition" exercise - a decision which is taken after a period of information-gathering and reflection. These cold cognition skills are mature by the age of 16 - so a science-based approach would support voting at 16.
The second set of arguments relates to voter engagement. Many pundits bemoan low levels of electoral engagement among young voters - and we agree that this is worrying. But there is sound evidence that giving young people an early start in voting leads to greater engagement in later life.
links and resources
The Electoral Knowledge Network is an international project hosting research and resources on all aspects of voting, including comparative statistics on voting legislation and a wealth of information on youth engagement.
Read the Electoral Commission's report on the experience of extending the franchise in the Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014.
Academics at the Universities of Edinburgh and Sheffield conducted a study on the Scottish experience of votes at 16 between 2014 and 2021 . The study finds compelling evidence that those who first voted as 16- or 17-year-olds remain more likely to vote in later life. "Within their means, Scottish and UK politicians, policymakers and civil society representatives should advocate for a lowering of the voting age to 16 for all UK elections to give more young people the opportunity to benefit from Votes at 16, including young people in Scotland who may be enfranchised at 16, but miss out on participating in an election until age 18 or older."
reed james writes:
The arguments for votes at 16 are well established. The evidence shows that lowering the voting age has the potential to break the cycle of low engagement among young adults. We believe (and research supports) that 16-year-olds are competent to make the sorts of decisions needed to participate in elections. We know from other UK contexts that the world doesn't fall apart when young people are allowed to vote. And finally, there's justice: young people are just as much affected by government decisions as those aged 18 and over, so why not let them participate in choosing the government?
Given that votes at 16 is already Labour Party policy, why is this still a campaigning issue among Labour members?
First, we need to ensure that an incoming Labour government actually follows through on this policy: it's not unknown for planned reforms to get lost in a busy legislative agenda, and we must ensure this does not happen to votes at 16. Notably, despite having been supported by successive Labour leaders, and having been pledged in all of Labour's election manifestos since 2015, votes at 16 did not feature in the 2022 Brown Report. This omission is puzzling, given that a key consideration of the Brown Commission was the rejuvenation of British democracy, and we very much hope that it doesn't reflect a lack of enthusiasm on the part of the leadership.
Second, the project of youth engagement doesn't begin and end with legislating for votes at 16. In fact, in order for the change to be fully effective, it needs to underpinned by a range of measures to ensure that young people have the information and the confidence they need to use their vote. Research on Scotland has already shown that 16-year-olds are informed voters, typically basing their vote on information from a wider range of sources than any other age group. But several studies have highlighted the need for improvements to citizenship education. In England, citizenship education is compulsory only between the ages of 11 and 16, typically occupies a tiny fraction of the curriculum, and is often delivered by non-specialist teachers. A fully effective suite of citizenship education would be delivered by specialists and would continue beyond age 16; research on young Scottish voters showed that deliberative political literacy education has a robust effect on many aspects of political participation that lasts well into later life.
A final word on the issue. Part of the reason that reducing the voting age has been so successful in Scotland, is that elections to Holyrood and Scottish local authorities are held under a form of proportional representation, where every vote counts. Lowering the voting age in the context of FPTP, where millions of votes do not count even slightly, may not have anywhere near the energising effect that it has had in Scotland. Votes at 16 will only have a proper impact on political engagement political trust, if it is accompanied by a change in the voting system at all levels of government.
Reed James is LCER's Youth Officer.