Feature: The voting age controversy

There’s a great moment in The West Wing where a geeky teenager gets to put a question to the president. “How about votes at 16?” he asks, his face alight with nerdy passion.

By Alex Stevenson

Martin Sheen narrows his eyes wisely, makes a Democrat wisecrack and agrees that the proposal is “worthy of consideration”. The teen sits down, awed by this graceful indication of favour.

In Britain we have Gordon Brown, a less attractive but at least more real leader than Jed Bartlett. He had his own Martin Sheen moment earlier this month in his statement to the Commons on constitutional renewal. The prime minister said he intended to give “further consideration to the voting age”.

The British equivalents to that nerdy teenager have been wriggling with excitement ever since. This could be the breakthrough they’ve been searching for, but it’s one which is far from universally supported. Many are deeply alarmed by the prospect.

The stage is set for the next round of the debate. Are we about to let young people, legally not yet adults, help decide who governs the country?

Please sir, can we have. the vote?

Imagine a relative of yours turns 16. Your cousin, or niece, or sister perhaps. Everyone she knows will be telling her all the things she can now do. She can get married; drive; join the army; have sex; and, alas, be taxed.

But she can’t vote. This is what infuriates Votes at 16, a campaigning coalition of organisations seeking to lower the voting age.

“At 16, people become adults and take control of their own futures – so why can’t we have the basic right of all adult citizens of a say in how the country is run?” one of its publicity leaflets asks.

“Stopping 16- and 17-year-olds from voting and having the chance to be heard sends a signal to them and to society, especially politicians, that our views aren’t valid and that we aren’t real citizens.”

Unfortunately this argument has been rejected by the Electoral Commission, which investigated the issue in 2004. It found “insufficient justification for a change” and its survey research found two-thirds of the public backed the status quo.

Part of the problem, it suggested, was that compulsory citizenship education was not yet at a stage where young people could be trusted to be properly informed. It left the door open for a review in several years’ time, however.

“The campaign has been building ever since then,” Jonathan Pyke of the Electoral Reform Society, which runs Votes at 16’s secretariat, says. Its research focused on 16- and 17-year-olds, 72 per cent of whom wanted the right to vote.

Mr Pyke believes it is wrong that young people, having completed their citizenship education at 16 and got “really interested and involved”, then have “two years to think about that before being able to take part in politics”.

“Once you get young people going on to university it’s harder to track them down,” he explains.

“It gets to the point where, when you’re at university, there’s a lot of other things you’re having to start to do.

“You develop the habit early, and people hold on to that for longer.”

Julie Morgan, the Labour backbencher who unsuccessfully attempted to get a private members’ bill on the issue through the Commons last year, agrees.

“I think it’s very important top be able to cast your first vote when you’re in a community to discuss all the different issues,” she told politics.co.uk in the Palace of Westminster.

Her bill got through to second reading before stalling, but it played its part in getting the Labour party’s policy forum to adopt the lower voting age at its 2008 autumn conference.

Ms Morgan remains “optimistic” about the wider campaign which in recent months has been focusing on the Youth Citizenship Commission.

This body completed its consultation on how to increase young people’s engagement in politics earlier this year and is now preparing its final report on the issue. It’s expected by the end of July and will make clear its own position on the voting age.

Update: The YCC published its findings on June 26th. Our story can be found here.

Ms Morgan knows which side of the fence she wants it to be on. “I think young people of 16 are mature enough to make a decision about who they want to vote for. They should have a say.”

Defending childhood

If the polls are anything to go by those on the other side of the fence are, unfortunately for Votes at 16, in the ascendancy. Shadow justice minister Dominic Grieve has made clear a Conservative government would not support the proposal.

Again, the fundamental issue is about when a child becomes an adult, with all the responsibilities that brings. But where Votes at 16 points to 16 as the best age for this, Mr Grieve disagrees.

“The age of 18 is widely recognised as the time when a child becomes an adult,” he says.

“Given that a person now has to be 18 to buy cigarettes or alcohol and the government plans to raise the school leaving age too, it seems absurd to suggest that the voting age should now be reduced.”

The Tories are especially keen to pour cold water on the notion that the rights of 16-year-olds raise them to ‘virtual adult’ status. Parental consent is required for marriage, leaving home and joining the Army, they point out.

Those choosing the latter are not allowed to fight, Britain being a signatory of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Furthermore, were Britain to lower the voting age nationwide we would be in the company of just ten other states – including beacons of democracy like North Korea, Iran, Sudan and Cuba.

And then there’s the sexuality issue. “The age of consent should be seen as a point where the protection of criminalising sexual activity is no longer necessary rather than a stage at which full citizenship rights are inherited,” a briefing note stresses.

Barry Sheerman, chairman of the Commons’ children, schools and families committee, shares that concern. He describes his frustrations as an MP trying to persuade the police to pursue “cynical gangs of men” exploiting young teenage girls into prostitution.

“If you get involved and try and get the police to take action against these gangs, by the time they get round to it they’re 16,” he says. “Oh, well they’re adults, aren’t they? But these kids have been exploited since 14.

“The protections of the child in my view are scant enough at 16 in terms of the sexuality of the child and the cynical manipulation of girls, and sometimes boys, by ruthless adults.”

Mr Sheerman is worried about the erosion of the age of adulthood – the rights of the child, he believes, should not be voluntarily surrendered. Giving votes to those at 16 could, he fears, lead to 18 being abandoned in a few years.

“The protections that children require in the fullest sense should be guaranteed to at least 18,” he says. “If you nibble away at that you put vulnerable children in even more vulnerable positions and open to exploitation.

“It is what we are so bad at in parliament, in politics – the unintended consequences of ‘oh what a jolly good idea! Votes at 16! Wow! Isn’t that good – without thinking what a knock-on there is in a few years’ time, that we won’t have any laws to protect someone at 16.

“‘Let the pimps and exploiters have a go at them? Who cares? They’re adults now, they can look after themselves’. Come on.”

The big issue

Deciding whether to change the voting age is part of a much wider problem: addressing young people’s disengagement with politics.

The problem is not all bad, the head of the Hansard Society’s citizenship education programme Michael Raftery says. He ought to know: his organisation provides young people with the materials they need to get involved through holding mock elections and learning about the processes.

The use of technology to discuss political issues and the growth of organisations like the UK youth parliament are all positives, he says. Not all are “completely switched off from politics”. But he says “it’s worth potentially being innovative in how we engage people in the political process”.

Bigger-picture problems about politics’ inability to connect with young people are at stake here. They’re interested in the issues, not necessarily the institutions, Mr Raftery says. “That’s something that needs to be addressed in a whole raft of ways.”

Celia Hannon, head of thinktank Demos’ citizenship programme, agrees. She says action on the voting age could have some value to “send a signal” to young people. But she too is worried by the engagement headache.

Gordon Brown’s recent disastrous YouTube appearance, roundly mocked as a middle-aged man’s transparently awkward attempt to connect with the kids, just about sums up the problem.

“If you’re seen to be inauthentic, you’re just taken apart really,” she says pityingly. Ms Hannon hopes this rather dismal effort won’t discourage politicians from taking rather “shaky steps” in the right direction – but advises them to improve their technique as quickly as possible.

“They are doing it in really mistaken ways,” she says.

“They’re using it just as another media outlet rather than a two-way dialogue. The interesting thing about why young people engage so intensively in these spheres [is]. they’re clearly having an impact and they’re having an interaction. They don’t see that in politics.”

Lowering the voting age, while a much-needed reform, may not solve the wider problems of youth engagement, this suggests. Perhaps the real question is whether the expenses crisis will provide the reforming momentum to send that signal, even if its overall significance is in doubt.

Mr Raftery says politicians are going to have to take the “rough with the smooth” on this.

“There’s more cards on the table from a reform perspective post-expenses,” he adds. “I think there’s potential for it to come into effect. But conversely it’s probable people are more annoyed with people and politicians than they’ve ever been.”

He would like to keep an “open mind” on the voting age issue and hopes the Electoral Commission will review its attitude soon in the future.

“It can’t just be the sort of decision which is made arbitrarily,” he finishes.

Yet in the current climate that risk must be fairly high. And if it does, Ms Hannon believes, it would be unwise to pin too many hopes on the measure.

“It’s important and these reforms and suggestions are certainly needed, there’s no doubt about that,” she wraps up.

“But I think if politicians think they’re a quick fix they’re going to be sorely disappointed.”

In the current climate, though, that is exactly what Britain’s politicians are looking for. The coming months will tell whether they will use the crisis triggered by the recent expenses revelations to push through a change in the voting age.

Will such a move empower children, or place them at risk? Will it improve political engagement, or be shunned by Britain’s youngest-ever electors? Those are the questions the public, experts and MPs – elected by adults only, of course – will be answering as the next general election approaches.