Last month saw a big victory for campaigners for a fairer franchise: the House of Lords supported giving 16 and 17-year-olds a vote in the EU referendum. Votes at 16 is now in the Bill. But this Tuesday, MPs will decide whether to keep it in there or remove that right.
We are strongly urging them not to remove the right for 16 and 17-year-olds to have a say. Why? In addition to some of the well-rehearsed arguments for votes at 16, such as the other rights and responsibilities gained at that age, the Society has long argued that giving 16 and 17-year-olds the right to vote provides better democratic outcomes.
Evidence from Scotland showed that 16 and 17-year-olds had a higher turnout rate (75%) than those aged 18 to 24 and even those aged 25 to 34. Academics have demonstrated that voting is habitual; one of the best predictors of non-voting is not having voted in the first election for which you were of age.
And in a time of declining turnout, politicians from across the political spectrum can get behind measures to boost the rate of first-time and habitual voting, encouraging more citizens to elect their representatives to hold governments to account. This is about what kind of democracy we want.
A constitutional precedent was set in last year’s Scottish independence referendum. 16 and 17-year-olds were given the vote and turned out in greater numbers than other young people, accessing information from a wider variety of sources than voters in any other age group. Their enfranchisement was such a success that many Scottish former opponents of votes at 16 are now supportive – including Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson MSP. Scotland has now passed a law to let 16 and 17-year-olds vote in Scottish Parliamentary and local elections.
On top of that, 16 and 17-year-olds in the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey can already vote, while Wales is considering similar measures to those of Scotland. In fact, those elections where 16 and 17-year-olds are not yet allowed to vote (most notably Westminster general elections) are looking increasingly isolated. Giving 16 and 17-year-olds the vote in the EU referendum is the next step on the path to widening the franchise.
One of the few new arguments being posed by opponents of votes at 16 is that the Electoral Commission has worries about how long it will take to register 16 and 17-year-olds. The Commission, however, suggests there are options “available to help get as many voters as possible on the register in the available timeframe” such as “a registration initiative, led by EROs and supported by the Electoral Commission”, “public awareness activities”, “political literacy initiatives” and “targeted work in schools and other education institutions”.
This is a positive challenge for us all to embrace – as people, as parties, as schools – to equip our younger citizens with the tools and knowhow to get informed and get involved.
So we welcome the inclusion of votes at 16 in the EU Referendum Bill, and we’ll be working hard to ensure this stays in the Bill. Then the battlefield will move to the remaining elections where 16- and 17-year-olds are not yet allowed to vote.
Votes at 16 – combined with balanced high-quality citizenship education – will better nurture tomorrow’s voters, activists and politicians, and contribute greatly to building a better democracy.