Monday, 15 October 2012

Votes at 16 - only in Scotland?

In exchange for a single question in the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, the Government has conceded that 16 and 17 year olds will be able to take part in the poll. This is something that I wholeheartedly welcome, and hope that it puts votes at 16 firmly back on the political-constitutional landscape.

Young people are the future of Scotland and I think it is a good thing that they will have the chance to express their opinions on that country’s future – regardless of my personal opinions on the future of the United Kingdom. I would like to see greater democratic involvement of 16 and 17 year olds in the rest of the UK on a permanent basis.

The arguments in favour of reducing the age of majority to 16 are well known and I believe self-evident. If at 16 you can join the armed forces, leave school, work and pay tax, then I think it seems entirely logical that you are old enough to vote. Voting is not like alcohol nor is it like risky financial investment; it does not damage your physical development or open up the possibility of unrepayable personal debt. It makes perfect sense to me that once you reach the age that the state no longer determines your education (or the fact that you are still in education), that you have the right to express your views on that state through the ballot box.  It is the arguments against it that I think are increasingly dated, and based largely on fear of change and a patronising view  of young people.

There will obviously always be reasoned opposition to this change – just as there has been opposition to every constitutional change that can be perceived to have social effects because it extends the franchise. There was a time when it was deemed perfectly common sense that only men who owned land should be able to vote, or that women should not be able to vote. People may well ask “where do you stop?” and suggest that allowing 16 year olds the vote could open up the possibility of allowing 15 or 14 year olds the vote. But the answer is simple – you stop at 16, which is no more or less arbitrary than 18.

We would not even by the pioneers that many opponents feel we would be – Germany, Austria and Norway all have votes at 16 at state/municipal level elections, and on the Isle of Man, in Guernsey and in Jersey 16 year old have full voting rights – right on our doorstep. And guess what? Anarchy has not broken out in anywhere as a result.

I understand the opposition to lowering the voting age, but I think we need to calmly look at it in the grand scheme of other things that well allow, expect and trust 16 year olds to do. Young people that I meet are opinionated, politicised and interested in the future of their country – let’s not base their position in the constitution on the negative images of 16 year olds that we often see in the media, and think seriously about extending the franchise.


Article by British Youth Council
Hugo Brookes

Policy and Campaigns Officer
(Including UK Youth Parliament and Young Mayor Network)



Supports lowering the voting age to 16 years in all elections and referendums held for all young people in the UK


October 2012 - Briefing from the Votes at 16 Coalition – www.votesat16.org.uk


The Votes at 16 Coalition calls on you to the debate to support lowering the voting age for all young people in the UK for all elections and referendums

Young people in Scotland voting in the Independence referendum

The decision to lower the voting age in the upcoming Scottish referendum will newly enfranchise 8.2% of the UKs 16 and 17-year olds. This is a hugely positive step towards a more inclusive and equal political system. It must, however, only be seen as the first step. It becomes untenable to argue that one section of the UKs 16-17year olds are deemed capable of voting whilst at the same time arguing there is another section that is not. As such, allowing Scottish 16 and 17-year olds to vote in the upcoming referendum must be followed by extending this right to all young people of this age in the UK. This is an argument supported not only by their rights but also by public opinion; a recent poll carried out by the Telegraph found that 53% of the population are in favour of lowering the voting age.

It would further encourage youth democratic engagement.

There is a generation of 16 and 17 year-olds emerging from the education system that are well equipped to engage and participate in both this referendum and all further elections across the UK. Every 16 year-old receiving school education will have completed citizenship classes. This is recent education about political processes and democracy. Furthermore, thousands and thousands of 16 and 17 year-olds are already coming together to engage in direct democracy and encourage community participation and leadership:

  • Over 590,000 young people voted in youth election in the Academic Year  2011/2012
  • 85% of young people go to a school with a school council so they can work with staff to improve their school.[1]

16 and 17 year-olds are knowledgeable and passionate about the world in which they live and are as capable of engaging in the democratic system as any other citizen. These are people who are already seen as capable of voting for the leader of their respective political parties; a right given to 15 year olds by both the Labour and Conservative parties. Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which the UK Government is a signatory, grants every child and young person the right to express their views freely, and to have such views given due weight in all matters affecting them. The Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly has urged the Committee of Ministers to encourage member states ‘to reconsider the age-related restrictions placed on voting rights in order to encourage young people’s participation in political life’.[2]

Votes at 16 will engage 16 and 17 year olds, who hold many responsibilities in our society, to influence key decisions that affect their lives and ensure youth issues are represented.

We believe it is impossible to justify the automatic and blanket exclusion of 16 and 17 year olds from the right to vote because, at 16, the law allows a person to:
  • give full consent to medical treatment
  • leave school and enter work or training
  • pay income tax and National Insurance
  • obtain tax credits and welfare benefits in their own right
  • consent to sexual relationships
  • get married or enter a civil partnership
  • change their name by deed poll
  • become a director of a company
  • join the armed forces
  • become a member of a trade union or a co-operative society.

Not only are 16 and 17 year olds by law able to make complex decisions and take on wide ranging responsibilities, they are also showing in practice that they want to make a positive difference. Locking them out is patronising: it relies on out-dated views about young people’s capacities.

Votes at 16 will empower 16 and 17 year olds, through a democratic right, to influence decisions that will define their future.

There are over 1,530,000 16 and 17 year olds in the UK. These young people are knowledgeable and passionate about the world in which they live, and are as capable of engaging in the democratic system as any other citizen.

Participation in free elections is a fundamental human right (protected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UK’s Human Rights Act). Because of these laws the reasons for excluding people from the vote have to be fair and balanced.

16 and 17 year olds would be able to raise issues that are persistently affecting young people in their area and vote on whether the introduction of a policy would improve their area for the better.

Other countries have given their young people the right to vote. Currently you can vote at 16 if you:
  • Live on the Isle of Man, Jersey or Guernsey
  • Live in Austria
  • Live in Nicaragua, Brazil or Ecuador
  • Live in Germany and are voting in Länder or state elections
  • Live in Hungary and meet certain criteria, for example if you are married before reaching the age of 18 you have full adult legal rights and can therefore vote
  • Live in Slovenia and are employed
  • Live in Norway and are part of the 20 selected municipalities that the government has given 16-year-olds the right to vote in the September 2011 local elections, as part of a greater effort to get young people interested in politics.

Votes at 16 will inspire young people to get involved in our democracy
16 and 17 year olds today are ready to engage and participate in our democracy, having learnt the principles in compulsory citizenship education. Through being a local youth councillor, a member of a youth parliament or their student union, they are already engaging in significant numbers. The next step is Votes at 16 – a move that would empower young people to better engage in society and influence decisions that will define their future.

The Votes at 16 coalition is made up of over 70 organisations including the British Youth Council, Funky Dragon, Children’s Rights Alliance England, UNITE, UNISON, TUC, EIS, The Co-operative and the National Union of Students

For further information

David Clark, Deputy CEO/ Head of Programmes and Policy, British Youth Council
david.clark@byc.org.uk 020 7250 8367




[1] Whitty, G and Wisby, E (2008) Real decision making? School councils in action.
[2] Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, 2009. Recommendation 1864 (2009). Promoting the participation by children in decisions affecting them. Strasbourg: Parliamentary Assembly.