Wales tears down barriers to democracy as England fortifies them

Jessica Blair, ERS Cymru Director

Posted on the 27th July 2017

Last week Wales has shown just what devolution can do: allow new ways of doing democracy.

On Tuesday the Welsh government launched a consultation that has the potential to be a game-changer when it comes to local elections.

In 2018, Wales will get new powers over elections. That offers some genuinely innovative possibilities — whether it’s voting on different days or over weekends, to being able to cast your ballot in different places (such as supermarkets, GP surgeries or bus stations) or letting some prisoners have the vote as a rehabilitation measure.

The big proposal though is plans to give 16 and 17-year-olds the right to vote in local elections (a separate panel is looking at introducing votes at the age 16 for Welsh assembly elections). It means the extension of the voting age in Wales now looks likely to happen.

It sits as part of a package that would amount to a fundamental shake up of the way council elections work, setting a precedent that other elections, including those for the National Assembly for Wales and Westminster might eventually follow.

What is key about these proposals is that the aim is to reduce the barriers to voting, to get more people engaged early and more easily. This is almost the exact opposite of what’s been happening at a UK level.

During last week’s PMQs the Prime Minister repeated her opposition to votes for 16 and 17-year-olds saying: “My view has always been and continues to be that 18 is the right age.” The Conservative manifesto proposed new ID requirements at polling stations, a move that the Electoral Commission estimated could stop 3.5 million people from voting.

The UK government’s failure to extend the franchise and their moves to actually limit it comes at a time when political interest is at one of its highest levels in recent years. June’s election had more people turning out to vote, including record levels of young people. This shows why now is exactly the time we should be talking about giving votes to 16 and 17-year-olds, not pushing back against it.

This is particularly evident when we look at how successful votes at 16 has been in Scotland. The Scottish referendum saw 89 per cent of 16 and 17-year-olds register to vote and a turnout of 75 per cent among those young people.

Where Wales is talking about reducing the barriers to voting, the UK government is trying to put them up. But with two of the four nations of the UK now adopting a fairer franchise, let’s hope it is that trend which wins out.

This article was originally published in The Times

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