Votes at 16/17: It’s time for a fair and equal franchise across the UK

Electoral Reform Society,

Posted on the 7th May 2020

Next month marks another landmark for British democracy: 16 and 17 year olds will officially be given the right to vote in Wales.

The move to expand the voting age for the Welsh Senedd follows the success of votes at 16/17 in Scotland – where even former doubters have been well and truly brought on board after seeing the success of the policy.

The Scottish independence referendum set a precedent that 16 and 17 year olds should have their say on constitutional issues. Their record voting in Scottish Parliamentary and local elections proved they were more than capable. Now Welsh 16 and 17-year-olds can vote for their representatives in the Welsh Senedd.

The win for votes at 16/17 was a real victory for Electoral Reform Society Cymru and the Votes at 16 coalition – and one we can build on. There is real momentum for change, to foster that sense of civic duty and engagement that we need.

Over the past few years, ERS Cymru spoke to hundreds of young people across Wales – the first set of young people that will be voting in 2021 – and they can’t wait to vote for the first time and truly have their voices heard.

A UK survey by the Hansard Society last year found that nearly three quarters of people felt our system of government needed improvement. It’s clear our institutions need an overhaul – and increasing engagement is vital to making sure they work for all of us.

It remains a democratic travesty that 16 and 17 year olds will be able to vote in these nations – yet across the UK, those same voters will be denied a say over their MP at the next election. That’s why the Votes at 16 coalition have launched a new petition calling for equal voting rights across the UK for 16 and 17 year olds.

There is no silver bullet for improving participation in politics and no singular cause. But the way people come into contact with politics in their formative years is crucially important for the future of our democracy. Voting young creates habit that can last a life time – and enliven our whole political debate.

When they can vote, 16 and 17 year olds have higher rates of turnout than 18 to 24 year-olds – with 75% voting and 97% saying they would vote in future elections, when asked following the Scottish indy ref. They also accessed more information from a wider variety of sources than any other age group.

Extending the right to vote would allow a seamless transition from learning about voting to putting it into practice – another reason we need to bolster citizenship education across the board.

There is already vibrant citizenship education in Scotland through Modern Studies. Wales is currently undergoing a curriculum review that is expected to expand citizenship studies – helping create spaces for democratic debate in schools.

The Electoral Reform Society is proud to be a founding member of the Votes at 16 coalition – and there is overwhelming cross-party support for the policy. Former leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson, also now says she is a “fully paid-up member of the ‘votes at 16’ club”.

With votes at 16/17 we must also ensure all voters are heard – scrapping Westminster’s outdated winner-takes-all system. Young people often feel particularly excluded in politics – but whatever generation you are part of, Westminster’s warped set-up is leading to millions of ignored votes each election.

We cannot leave another generation behind. Let’s build a stronger franchise – to start revitalising our democracy and rebuilding trust in politics at last.

The British Youth Council’s new petition calls for fair and equal voting rights across the UK. You can sign it here.

Image credit: UK Parliament

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