My 20 years of campaigning for votes at 16

Guest Author, the views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Electoral Reform Society.

Posted on the 26th April 2021

This is a guest post from Kelly Harris, a qualified youth worker who has worked with children and young people for 20 years across Wales. 

I still find it hard to believe that it has been 20 years since I sat in the Metropole Hotel in Llandrindod Wells with around 50 young people from across Wales whilst we debated whether or not Funky Dragon, the Children and Young People’s Assembly for Wales (at the time), should publicly support lowering the voting age to 16.

How it all started?

It was the summer of 2001, I was 16 years old and represented Neath Port Talbot on Funky Dragon’s Grand Council, and the debate focused on arguments that have been the foundation to people’s support or opposition to votes at 16 for many years.

I want to vote for my future”, “I don’t get any lessons on politics at school”, “I don’t care about it all”, “politicians don’t care about young people” and “I care about issues in my community and want to be heard” were some of the general points about lowering the voting age. In the spirit of democracy, we held a vote and the majority of young people were in favour of lowering the voting age to 16.

How we got here?

Fast-forward 20 years and two decades of debate, opposition, multiple failed votes in our democratic institutions, young people continuing to campaign and submitting petitions, before a successful vote in the Senedd in 2019. This means that finally, in 2021, 16 and 17 year olds in Wales will be heading to the polling booth for the first time on May 6th.

Thinking back to 2001, the Liberal Democrats were the first UK political party to publically support lowering the voting age to 16 in all public elections, which really felt like a big moment for the campaign. Finally, politicians elected to represent us were giving serious thought, whether for or against, the idea of lowering the voting age.

Children’s Rights and Participation

As the years passed, Wales moved towards being a country that placed importance on embedding and upholding Children’s Rights and giving young people a voice. Welsh Government made structures such as school councils and local youth forums statutory, and adults began to understand what it meant to give children and young people a voice at the table. It was through these structures that I personally started to witness young people beginning to feel empowered to speak out on local issues such as education, the environment, health services etc., and hold decision-makers to account.

By this time, I was employed by Funky Dragon and was able to watch and support the next generation of young people lobby hard for votes at 16, and keep the momentum alive by joining forces with the United Kingdom Youth Parliament (UKYP) and the Votes@16 campaign to support their work. There were events in the House of Commons, as part of the UKYP, where young people from across the UK were united in their desire for votes at 16. The speeches from inspiring young people (they could definitely show some elected officials a thing or two!) showed their unified feeling that at 16 and 17 they could consent to sexual activity, join the Armed Forces, pay tax, play the lottery etc., yet they could not vote for the people elected to represent them – and this was not fair.

Making votes at 16 a reality in Wales

The years ticked by but things were slowly changing. Welsh Government announced that Wales would be introducing a brand new curriculum where young people’s voices would be at the heart of its design, including a firm commitment to political education.

In 2014, I started working for the Welsh Parliament to help establish their Youth Engagement Service and I helped to run the Votes@16 consultation across Wales. Wales needed to hear from young people to see if there was still a desire to lower the voting age. The consultation received over 10,000 responses from young people and it became (at the time) the Welsh Parliament’s largest response to a consultation ever! The results were in from young people – 58% agreed the voting age should be lowered to 16, 29% said no and 18% were unsure.

The 2017 Expert Panel on Assembly Electoral Reform, chaired by Professor Laura McAllister CBE, used the Votes@16 consultation findings as evidence and concluded that the Welsh Parliament should lower the voting age to 16. Endorsed by the Fifth Assembly’s Llywydd, Elin Jones MS, this was a HUGE turning point in the movement for votes at 16 in Wales.

Two years later in 2019, the Senedd and Elections (Wales) Bill secured enough votes to pass legislation and finally make votes for 16 and 17 year olds in Wales a reality!

Looking back, looking forward

This change would not have happened without young people over the past 20+ years; it has been a long campaign and whether you are for or against votes at 16, you cannot deny the determination of young people to stand up and have a say in who runs the country they live in.

You also cannot deny the strong commitment from some politicians (a big shout out to Julie Morgan MS for tirelessly campaigning as an MP and the MS on the issue), past and present Children’s Commissioners for Wales, and youth organisations to lowering the voting age over the last 20 years. Collectively they all helped to keep the issue alive, reminding decision-makers why young people’s voices matter.

Change does not happen overnight – for me it has been 20 years of campaigning and advocating since that meeting of young people in the Metropole Hotel in 2001. Within those 20 years, I have become a qualified youth worker, trying my hardest to support the next generations to have a say on issues that are important to them. On the 6th of May it will be a proud moment when I get to watch my 17-year-old niece vote for the first time, knowing that 20 years of hard work really does pay off.

The journey does not end here. Let’s ensure the next generations of young people receive a strong political education within the new curriculum so we can continue to help them become informed, engaged and educated voters. In my opinion, Wales will be a better and stronger place for including young people in the democratic process. Here is to the next 20 years!

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