As Scotland sets the wheels in motion to lower the voting age to 16, Victoria Monro puts forward her case for leaving it at 18.
It’s interesting to consider many individuals’ motive for wanting to give 16-year-olds the right to vote in Parliamentary and local elections. The conventional ones are: that many young people are politically aware, more so than many adults and deserve a say; that there should not be taxation without representation, so young people should be permitted to vote as they are indeed taxpayers; that young people are able to undertake more serious responsibilities (such as marriage, entering the army) and voting is not as serious as that, plus an assortment of other arguments that essentially suggest there’s no difference between 16-year-olds and 18-year-olds, therefore the former should be able to vote if the latter can.
These arguments are all flawed. Every argument put forth has errors in its logical make-up that determine that it cannot be grounds for a constitutional change in how we apply democratic principles in our country.
Undoubtedly, many young people are politically aware. University students like myself, setting up political affiliations and societies, becoming members of organisations such as UK Youth Parliament or the British Youth Council, demonstrate that for many young people, engaging with society and the socio-political norms, seeking to educate themselves etc, is a good thing. I wonder if any of my readers have experience of the UK Youth Parliament. I do – I was one of them.
Let me tell you what UKYP essentially is: it’s not young people wanting to develop their views, it’s young people, with no life experience who also have very little academic grasp of the issues at hand (political, economic, philosophical or otherwise), who have developed gut-instinct arguments based on views they happen to hold or their parents happen to hold, who ultimately just want others to agree with them. It is neither a learning curve, nor an opportunity for people to develop beliefs: it’s merely a chance for people to shout out about their beliefs as loudly as possible and a place where young, lefty-inclined young people go, because they see the grown-up world and they want to be part of it – but they’re not prepared to learn what they need to learn in order to truly understand it. They don’t even want to admit that they don’t know things.
That’s my opinion. That’s what I took from my year with them. And what, for me, was the pinnacle of this? When discussing, in the House of Commons, whether young people should get free travel, someone said, effectively, we shouldn’t give free travel to old people, we should give it to young people instead. The elderly, some of whom have difficulty walking, most of whom have paid into a system to secure and ensure their future well-being, should have their benefits removed, to pay for the entitlement issues of a few young people. I was appalled. I still am.
That’s not to say that all young people involved in politics are like this. What that does say, though, is that “young people care about politics” does not lead logically to “therefore young people should be able to participate as members of the electorate”. The meaningful difference is levels of engagement based on levels of understanding. Do 16 year olds understand the world? No, they truly don’t. They understand schooling – because for most of them, that’s all they’ve done by 16.
Then again, there are adults who vote, who have even poorer understanding of the world than your average 16 or 17 year old. So, if understanding the world and politics is the requisite condition for voting rights, then why do we let adults who don’t display this, vote? Well, we shouldn’t. But the only way to stop them is through rolling out means testing that would be so expensive, it just wouldn’t be worth it.
So what do we do? Well, let’s discuss what we don’t do. We don’t do something that is stupid, just to be consistent. We don’t want ignorant people who have no understanding of the implications of their voting records (and what would happen if they got what they wanted) to vote, yet our current method of only letting adults vote means some of these people we wish couldn’t vote slip through the net. The answer is not to resort to the lowest common denominator and encourage more people to fall through the net. The argument essentially says “X is bad, but we’ll do Y just so we’re doing equally badly, uniformly” – this is one example of where consistency is not helpful.
There shouldn’t be taxation without representation? Interesting argument. A 12 year old who does a newspaper round, and spends their income pays VAT – do we want them to vote? Someone who is determined to be medically insane can buy a newspaper – are we suggesting they should vote? Seems to me, this argument is “when it suits us, people who pay tax should be able to vote”. The principle doesn’t apply to most people, just this small group of politically active young people, and unless we’re changing the argument to include criminals, the insane, and 10 year olds, the argument fails to convince.
Under 18s have to have parental permission to marry their spouse of choice. Are we going to insist that their parents supervise their voting intentions too? It’s the same for the army – parental consent required to join if under 18. We wouldn’t want this for voting rights. So they’re not analogous, because the answer to voting cannot be “only with your parents consent”. Most parents wouldn’t care whether their child voted or not, whilst they would actively care if their child got married or became a soldier.
Finally, to the argument that there’s no difference between 16 year olds and 18 year olds: rather than fall into a discussion of whether there is the case, which is lengthy, complicated and arguably highly subjective, I’ll concede. The difference between a 16 and an 18 year old is not significant enough to warrant voting being a discriminatory factor. So we give 16 year olds the vote. There’s little difference between a 15 year old and a 16 year old. So do we give 15 year olds the vote? Do we keep going, every few years using this argument to lower the age? When does a collection of sand grains become a pile of sand? How many water molecules need to come together to form water? You can keep redefining it ’til you’re blue in the face; you’ll end up with 6-month-old babies voting, because they’re not much different to 7-month-old babies. This, obviously, is absurd. But people who argue that 18 is arbitrary seem to suggest 16 is not arbitrary. No; 16 is equally arbitrary.
There’s no convincing argument for the voting age being lowered to 16, unless you’re a left-wing politician, given as most young people are left-wing by instinct and will likely add to your voters. I once heard an argument that said: if you come across a field, and there’s a random fence in the field, and you look at the fence and think “Why is this there? It can’t serve any purpose. I can’t think of a single thing that it does” – you should sit down and think until you find a reason. There is never anything done without a reason. And unless there’s a pressing reason why you should change something, you shouldn’t change it. In this case the fence is the voting age. We don’t know why it has to be 18, but we can’t find a convincing argument to reduce it. “If it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change” – Lord Falkland was spot on with this statement, and it readily applies to voting at 16.
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