What connects people with Irish, Kiribatian or New Zealand passports? They can all vote in UK general elections if they have (or don’t need) leave to remain in the UK. Who votes in UK elections is actually quite a complicated matter, with different rules for different elections.
EU citizens can vote in local and devolved elections (for now), Commonwealth citizens can vote in general elections and local elections, and members of the House of Lords don’t get a say on their local MP.
There’s lots of debate around who should be able to vote. Some people believe that voting should be based on residency, if you use local services you should get a say how they are run. You don’t have to be a US citizen to vote in some US school board elections, for instance. Others believe that voting should be based on citizenship, but what if you’ve moved abroad – or never set foot in the country? It is certainly an interesting debate, and one with no clear answer.
But we can probably all agree that whatever the rules, they should be applied equally. As the UK moves to a new standard voting age of 16, England and Northern Ireland are being left behind.
16 and 17 year olds already have the vote in Scotland. They had a higher turnout rate than 18- to 34-year-olds during the Scottish independence referendum. And, after they showed a taste for accessing more information from a wider range of sources, even people who had been votes at 16 sceptics before the referendum – such as Scottish Conservatives leader Ruth Davidson – changed their minds. The Scottish Parliament unanimously introduced Votes at 16 for all Holyrood and local elections in Scotland in 2015.
They are likely to get the vote in Wales soon too. One week ago, the National Assembly for Wales voted overwhelmingly to start the process to extend the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds.
Votes at 16 leads to higher levels of political engagement, creates a lifelong habit of voting which will boost turnout and ensures young people get the representation they deserve.
Unfortunately, for 16 and 17 year olds in England and Northern Ireland (and, for Westminster elections still, the whole UK), having a say is still not on the table.
But, today the Overseas Electors Bill starts its committee stage. The bill aims to remove the 15-year limit on how long a British person can live overseas before losing their right to vote in UK general elections.
This bill is an opportunity to enfranchise a new set of 16 and 17 year olds – those living overseas. If an English 17 year old can move to Scotland and Wales and vote for their MSPs, why can’t those that move to France, California or Australia vote for their MP? Liberal Democrat Layla Moran MP is putting in an amendment to the bill for this end. When the Society asked her about her amendment, Layla said:
“If we are happy to allow a 16 year old to pay tax, be a parent or serve in the army then we should not deny them the right to vote. That is why Liberal Democrats have long supported votes for 16 and 17 year olds.
“With 16 and 17 year olds playing an active role in elections in Scotland and now the Welsh Assembly backing plans too, the genie is out of the bottle. The Overseas Electors Bill gives us another chance to give 16 and 17 year old Brits living abroad the chance to vote in Parliamentary elections, and in the process urge the Government to do the right thing and extend votes at 16 to all elections in every part of the UK.
“Given Brexit poses so many threats to the lives of young people, they deserve their voice to be heard. It is time to demand better from the UK Government. It is time Ministers ensured every 16 and 17 year olds across the UK, and those British citizens living overseas, have the same right to vote.”
The amendment is also backed by Labour MP Christian Matheson and Plaid Cymru MP Ben Lake. Some Conservative MPs on the public bill committee have previously expressed support for extending the franchise to 16 too, so the Society hopes they will support the amendment.
A group of Conservatives recently submitted articles for our pamphlet Civic Duty: The Conservative Case for Votes at 16 and 17 they might find interesting.
If the prospect of 16 and 17 year olds living in some places having the vote, but not those living in others, seems strange, just remember – this is already reality. It is time for Whitehall and Westminster to catch up with Scotland and, now, Wales – and extend the franchise for all elections for all 16 and 17 year olds.