For those of us who are politically-minded, voting for the first time is a landmark occasion. There is satisfaction in putting a cross next to your preferred candidate and placing the completed ballot paper into the ballot box. Depending on which elections are being held, this currently happens between the ages of 18 and 23.
But that could all be about to change today as the National Assembly for Wales has overwhelmingly agreed to introduce new legislation, which would see the franchise extended to 16 for Assembly elections and a change of name for the Assembly itself to Senedd Cymru or the Welsh Parliament.
We use the word ‘game changer’ too much in politics but if anything deserves that label, it’s this. The right for young people in Wales to vote for the first time will be a decisive change for the health of our democracy and enfranchise a new generation to have a say in issues that affect their lives and their future.
Extending the right to vote to 16 and 17 year olds makes sense. It’s worked well in Scotland and 16 and 17 year olds are largely in school and thus much easier to reach with information about registering and voting.
In the Scottish Independence referendum, 16 and 17 year olds had higher rates of turnout than 18 to 24 year olds. We also know that those that vote while they’re younger are more likely to turnout in the future, so perhaps we’ve finally found a legitimate application for the phrase ‘vote early, vote often’.
Since devolution, we’ve been slowly strengthening our political offering in Wales. From a small, new and relatively constrained institution the Assembly has become a place where laws are made, taxes are raised and decisions are passed that genuinely affect our day to day lives.
Extending the right to vote and the name change of the Assembly go to the very heart of this progress. This is the first step in a long journey of creating what last year’s Expert Panel on Assembly Electoral called ‘A Parliament that works for Wales’.
Extending the franchise on its own is a major development for Welsh democracy, but hopefully not the last. What’s not in the statement this week are the other recommendations from that Expert Panel report. Namely to increase the size of the Assembly, to adjust the electoral system used for its elections and to link measures to boost diversity to the changes.
All of these reforms are desperately needed. The capacity issue, in particular, is fundamental to how effectively the Senedd can work for us all. With just 60 Assembly Members a number of councils in Wales are larger and the ability for a small number of AMs to properly scrutinise legislation, budgets and government decisions is vastly limited.
Unfortunately, these reforms are also politically difficult. It’s hard for politicians to make a decision to boost their numbers without fearing a public kickback. Yet, difficult doesn’t mean impossible. There’s still hope that the shifting of political sands- new party leaders, the loss of four MEPs (who cost seven times more than one Assembly Member) and additional responsibilities coming from leaving the EU – will change things on these next reforms. We must keep up the pressure on the next iteration of these reforms, while recognising how far we’ve already come in seeing extending the franchise progress through the Assembly.
The Assembly’s plans are a landmark moment for young people across Wales who will, for the first time, have the chance to have their voices heard. Assembly Members will get the chance to approve a change that really will go down in the history books and put Wales up there with nations leading the way on democratic reform.
Sign our petition to extend the franchise for all elections