Reasons not to reduce the voting age

This is a rough transcript of a conversation involving my mother. A teacher at a college. The students involved are around 17 years old.

Student 1: You hear this? Gordon Brown is going to put a Tax on sweet wrappers and crisp packets to pay for the streets to be cleared!

Student 2: Seriously?! [ed – No really, seriously?] that’s awful.

Student 1: I know! I pay my road tax!

My Mum: Um… that’s not what road tax i… [interrupted]

Student 1: What I want to know is – if I’ve paid my road tax – why do I have to give way to pedestrians at Zebra Crossings. It’s my road.

My Mum: Road tax is there to maintain the roads. Pedestrians could walk there even if there was no road. You let people pass at Zebra crossing because that’s the etiquette of the road. Simple polite rules so everyone gets along, whether driver, pedestrian or cyclis… [interrupted]

Student 2: Don’t even get me started on cyclists. I just want to knock ’em down and kill ’em. They haven’t paid road tax!

My Mum: You shouldn’t kill people actu… [interrupted]

This happened. These people exist. They say these things like they’re good ideas.

My mother and I found the above hilarious and utterly chilling. Although Power 2010 think lowering the voting age to 16 is a good idea I have my reservations.

The usual arguments for universal suffrage amounts to a simple argument that although we are all different in property claims, intellectual capacity, religious adherence or appearance we all remain morally equal.

With the above rationale, there seems little reason to deny 16 year olds the vote. Few would argue that because of their age they lack a moral equivalence with people, say, twice their age.

People at 16 can join the army, they can work full time, pay tax and they can have sex (even if they can’t legally watch it). Perversely they can do all this without having a vote; deciding who we war against; what their tax is spent on and whether or not they can legally see boobies. [1]

The above college discussion doesn’t impact on the moral worth of the participants (cyclecide aside) so why shouldn’t 16 years olds have the vote?

The problem comes with the fact that it would be hard to find people who would argue that 16 year olds lack a moral equivalence with people half their age.

Democracy is not just an expression of common ideals, it is also a system of government. Government is, or should be, an enterprise to seek out the best institutions under which we should all live our lives.

Democracy is the meta-institution which offers us the best route to the best institutions on offer. This requires something more thoroughly selective than a simple moral equivalence, it requires an aptitude that few at 16 seem to possess.

Its prevalence at 18 can also seem somewhat lacking but this line must always be drawn slightly arbitrarily. This cleavage in society is unfortunate but necessary.

It may be that our educations system and civil society are particularly bad at equipping 16 year olds with the skills necessary, but unless it improves the enfranchisement of 16 year olds will only cause democracy to suffer.

Similar arguments were of course made in the past about women or black people and proved utterly incorrect. But unless 16 year olds can prove themselves more adept at mastering the basics they are going to have to remain outside the direct democratic process.

[1] Half of 16 year olds chief concern.


13 thoughts on “Reasons not to reduce the voting age

  1. ‘People at 16 can vote, they can work full time … without having a vote’

    Might want to edit that bit.

      1. you are 14? (now 15)
        YOU SHOULD NOT HAVE A VOTE. You are FAR too young to vote. You won’t know enough about the government, politics or our country’s system. You are a fool, Alexandra.

        1. Who of you two truly is the fool? One does not need to know about a government system to vote against or for something. Morality and ethics are not gained with age, nor lost. It would not be what they would vote, but if they’d vote at all. It’s not maturity; it’s whether or not they’d even get out to vote at all.

  2. Oooh, provocative. Interesting to ponder this bit:

    But unless 16 year olds can prove themselves more adept at mastering the basics they are going to have to remain outside the direct democratic process.

    The counter-argument to this would be that maybe being disenfranchised at 16 removes the incentive to get involved and interested in the public sphere. Just from a teaching point of view, I can’t imagine anything more powerful to the teaching of ‘citizenship’ than by pointing out that they have a certain degree of power to change the system.

    And besides, the sweet tax is coming, LeftOutside, you mark my words.

    1. Sweet tax… what a ludicrous idea if it is. Even more so if the funds are ringfenced for street cleaning…

      Anyway, with regards to your argument. I’m in a bit of a quandary.

      One of the things I’m quite hot on (apart from disenfranchising prisoners) is penal reform. One of the big reforms I would like to see is allowing all prisoners a vote – because, get this, this would engage them in politics.

      It seems the exact same logic is applicable to giving 16 year olds the vote. So I’m not ruling out 16 year olds getting the vote, but giving people the vote and hoping they’ll earn it seems a dangerous experiment.

      Once people are enfranchised, its difficult to disenfranchise them. They certainly won’t vote for it.

      There are lots of ways 16 year olds can get involved in politics, voting is a small part of the democratic process, outside campaigning, lobbying, agitating, nonviolent protest etc. But 16 year olds are not engaged in or by these things.

      Once they prove themselves I will happily change my mind. But I don’t think that will happen until we have more independent schools dedicated to pushing a child’s potential.

      1. Certainly with you on enfranchising prisoners (I even have the posts to prove it!) not least because disenfranchisement is (thanks ECHR!) illegal.

        Personally, I didn’t see too much wrong with the anecdote you shared at the top of your piece; in fact, I thought it was a positive demonstration of somebody forming a political philosophy. For one, I’m reasonably sure this student wasn’t serious about running the pedestrians over, and I’m comforted that there’s some understanding about how the actions of a state can affect an individual’s life – even if that understanding was quite limited and based on faulty information. I would be delighted to see this student enter the voting booth, for he/she already has more going for them than millions of Britons who are at or above the legal age to vote.

        Moreover, I don’t see the point of limiting our definition of ‘getting involved in politics’ to joining an organised movement. Sixteen and seventeen year olds are already involved in politics thanks to the tax they pay, the sex they have, the booze they’re not allowed to drink, the cigarettes they’re not allowed to smoke, the people they’re permitted to kill, the marriage ceremonies they’re allowed to have. On top of this, I’ve taught scores of kids who want to work in the public services, or who do work placements in public services, or who help do fundraising for local charities/hospices. There are countless different ways they interact with the state & brush up against entitlements/restrictions which were placed upon them by politics.

        Sure, they’re still developing. Yes, many of them might regret their first vote. But for me to argue that they should be denied the vote is for me to apply standards to them which are significantly higher than their older peers. I’m not prepared to do that.

  3. At some point children become adults. For the individual that could happen at 13 or 30, but unless we have some sort of examination / testing process there will always be an arbitrary cut-off, and that has been set at 18.

    The fact we have a skewed system – that children can pay taxes at 16 and do some “grown-up” things probably says more about 16 being wrong than 18.

    Any ideas I had about supporting a reduction in the voting age were lost when I saw on the discussion forum of one (major) party someone who, as a “young activist” for the party, was lamenting that he could not vote in the upcoming election. It was unfair, all the hard work, it was going to be so exciting, etc. And then he said (to paraphrase) :-

    “The thing that really annoys me though is that I hate him [politician] so much and I want to do something, sometimes I just think I should kill him.”

    Any age limit is a generalisation but these are, generally, children we are taking about.

    1. Its true, with more engagement they might learn the landscape a little better, and get an interest in the issues and values, but they’ll probably not lose the childish mannerisms or youthful foolishness.

      Frankly teenagers have some pretty obnoxious or downright reactionary views, not because they’re deeply held but because they’ve only picked up bits and bobs of grown up society.

      For example support for banning smoking outright is quite strong amongst those children that don’t smoke. Homophobia is rampant.

      Those are things that need to be challenged, and they probably reflect as badly on our society as it does on the kids, but without a change in aptitude it doesn’t seem they could handle a vote.

  4. These arguments make a compelling case for denying libertarians who leave comments on ‘Comment is Free’ the vote. It may be the case that, say, 50% of 16 year olds do not have the maturity, skills and knowledge to “handle a vote” – but same goes for 100% of, say, members of Libertarian Party UK and assorted fellow travellers.

    Being less flippant, an easy counter example comes from London Citizens. At their Citizens’ Assemblies to develop a citizens’ response to the economic crisis, one of the five proposals was developed by school children (working with adults), and children as young as eight took part and had an equal say in prioritising which policies to campaign on.

    Democracy is more than just voting and all that, after all.

  5. Gee, provocative yeah, but where do I start to disagree… um, yeah, anecdotal scenario where negative reinforcement takes place, great basis for policy formation… um, yeah, everyone over 18 automatically acts ,behaves and votes like an adult, right? (if they vote, that is), errr… why not just cut the charade and put a property bar on voting? because that’s not what you really mean, is it?

    Voting is a human right, pure and simple.

    Either we control our own destinies or someone else is doing so for us, and we can’t be sure they’ll be doing it in our interests.

    Me, I’d go all out and say there are no exclusion criteria to voting whatsoever, except the requirement to do it in person. If you are 3 years old and can hold a pencil yourself you can make your own mind up whether you want to vote and therefore who for too.

    If politicians can’t convince by argument it is their failure, not the publics.

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