Baby Faced Electorate: The Case Against Votes at 16

After the House of Lords voted to extend the franchise for the EU Referendum, Matt Gillow says that 16- and 17-year-olds should not get the vote.


A teenage girl leaving a polling station during the Scottish Referendum: Matt Gillow argues that the UK shouldn’t follow suit (Photo: The Guardian)

A teenage girl leaving a polling station during the Scottish Referendum: Matt Gillow argues that the UK shouldn’t follow suit (Photo: The Guardian)

The big domestic news of the week comes from the House of Lords. The upper chamber has, in recent history, thrown the details of the 1911 Parliament Act into the air by opposing financial legislation, and more recently lent their weight to the Liberal Democrat–Labour amendment that 16- and 17-year-olds should be able to vote in the EU referendum. It is an unusual view for an 18-year-old Liberal Democrat to take, but I think they’re wrong.

Support is growing, but should we really be pushing for votes at 16? (Photo: Wimps)

Support is growing, but should we really be pushing for votes at 16? (Photo: Wimps)

The fact is that many of the vocal campaigners for votes at 16 are either politicians, caught up in their own progressiveness, with very little idea of what 16-year-olds these days are like; or indeed part of the vocal minority of politically minded under-18s.

As an 18-year-old, I can remember being 16 far clearer than any politician backing the campaign. I still know and occasionally speak to 16-year-olds, and the majority couldn’t care less about politics. All I cared about when I was 16 was football, which girls my friends were into, passing my GCSEs and whether it was worth buying fake ID. Politics, at 16, is not a particularly “cool” thing to be into. Between 16 and 18, my friends and I did a lot of growing up.  During their mid-to-late teens, many young people begin to work full- or part-time jobs, plan for the future, and take big steps into adulthood.

Before considering lowering the voting age, compulsory political education needs to be implemented (Photo: The Guardian)

Before considering lowering the voting age, compulsory political education needs to be implemented (Photo: The Guardian)

Sure, you can join the army (with parental permission,) though you can’t actually go into combat, and you can get married (with parental permission) but those arguments are counterbalanced when you consider that no 16-year-olds pay tax – it is commonly argued that nobody should be taxed without representation and so, by this argument, would those campaigning for 16-and 17-year-olds to have a voice in the referendum argue for the taxation of those they wish to enfranchise? Only a miniscule percentage of 16-year-olds have any worldly, independent experience, which can really inform political leanings. Julia Hartley-Brewer said it best by pointing out that we don’t trust 16-year-olds with much at all. Giving the vote to 16-year-olds in the upcoming referendum would carry the risk of essentially giving an extra vote to lucky parents with 16-year-old children – I would have been far more easily influenced by my parents at 16 than at 18. This idea of double-enfranchisement is an insult to democracy and disregards any noble intentions behind giving 16- and 17-year-olds the vote. Sadly, much of the support from political parties comes not due to liberal leanings, but a belief that 16- and 17-year-olds will vote for them; the SNP backed votes at 16 in the Scottish referendum because of this, and arguably pro-EU campaigners are attempting the same tactic (41% of 18-24-year-olds are “firmly in favour” of continued membership.)

One of the key problems with political apathy is that it runs the risk of turning elections into popularity contests – and the young are the most apathetic of all age groups (just 44% of 18-24-year-olds turned out to vote in the 2010 election.) This is without even considering significant, time-consuming and expensive development that the electoral register would have to go through to accommodate 16- and 17-year-olds. Some experts suggest that the process of updating the electoral register could delay the referendum by up to a year, making it hugely unlikely that the vote would happen before 2017.

Contrary to popular belief, the Scottish referendum isn’t evidence that we should give the vote to 16- and 17-year-olds. (Photo: Wicklow Voice)

Contrary to popular belief, the Scottish referendum isn’t evidence that we should give the vote to 16- and 17-year-olds. (Photo: Wicklow Voice)

The overriding fact is this: 16- and 17-year-olds do not want, or care about the vote. The House of Commons Party Membership files show that less than 5% of Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour members are students, let alone under 18s – The average age of a Conservative party member in 2013 was 59 years old, while before the 2015 general election, the average age of a Labour party member was 53.

During the Scottish referendum, 16- and 17-year olds were less likely to vote than those twice their age. The Scottish referendum, which often serves as an argument for votes at 16 campaigners, merely serves as evidence that younger members of the electorate are less likely to vote. Compared with 85% of 35 to 54-year olds and 92% of those aged 55 and over turning out to vote, only 75% of the newly eligible 16- and 17-year-olds did.

Don’t give 16-and 17-year-olds the vote in the EU referendum. Instead, activists and politicians need to focus their efforts on implementing compulsory political education into the curriculum at some point before the age of 18. Focus efforts on ensuring that people are engaged and educated when they reach 18, rather than just expanding the numbers of people who, after the first time, will probably never vote again. Help to grow the minority of politically-literate under 18s. Don’t try and fix what isn’t broken.

About Matt Gillow
Matt Gillow is an 18-year-old self-described Orange Book Liberal Democrat from Bath, currently on a gap year before studying international relations at Leeds University. In his spare time, Matt plays a lot of sport: he’s a black belt in Taekwondo and captained his local football team for five years. Matt is a Burnley FC fan, tweets at @matt_gillow and blogs at mattgillow.wordpress.com.