TalkPolitics on Votes at 16

By Head of Media Richard Wood

Making the case for better political education in the context of the votes at 16 debate.

Votes at 16 is the wrong discussion: now is the time to improve political education. 

Speaking to Sunday Politics Wales, Welsh Labour’s Alun Davies announced plans to allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in Welsh Council elections. If the announced changes are confirmed, 16 and 17-year-olds in the 2022 council elections and beyond will be able to cast ballots for their local authorities. However, under the proposed changes, the voting age in Wales will remain at 18 for other elections.

Until now, TalkPolitics has had no official position in the Votes at 16 debate, but based on our principles and our existing campaign for extensive and impartial compulsory political education in schools, we have come to the following conclusion:

At this stage, TalkPolitics is not ready to discuss votes at 16 across the UK until political education in schools for under 16s is vastly improved. For democracy to work, the citizens of a country must be educated in the processes of the political system itself. This includes education on the voting systems, the different political parties and figures, the main issues at elections, the ways in which bills become laws and so on. To those who argue that 16 and 17-year-olds do not have a good enough understanding of politics and the workings of society, extensive education in schools is the best counter-argument.

Political education is far from perfect across the UK, thus having a knock-on effect on school-leavers who go into the workforce without a comprehensive background in political education. This subsequently contributes to why young people are consistently less likely to vote than older individuals.

Taking this and the votes at 16 debate, there is no point lowering the voting age if we do not address one of the biggest democratic deficits in the country: the lack of substantial political education. The case for this is overwhelming. To participate in the political system, young voters - and all voters - need to understand the processes of the system. While there is an argument that voters will pick this up as they age, those who turn 18 without a firm grounding in the workings of the country’s politics are set to lose out. This must change.

Furthermore, amongst the population there is strong support for political education. A recent poll for Shout Out UK suggests that 92% of Brits support compulsory political education in schools. It also found that almost 6 in 10 support replacing religious education with political education in schools. There is a significant case for giving 16 and 17-year-olds the vote as made by Votes at 16 and the Electoral Reform Society. Under 18s take on adult-roles in multiple ways and are subsequently affected by the workings of the political system, but giving them the vote should be coupled with vastly improved, non-biased political education in schools. When political education is improved, only then should votes at 16 should be discussed.

With Scotland, and now Wales going down this path and most major UK parties in favour of it, votes at 16 feels inevitable. But if it is to work, a sturdy foundation of political education is a must.

Could votes at 16 improve election turnout?

The evidence on this is mixed. An ICM poll following the Scottish independence referendum of 2014 indicated a 75% turnout for 16-17-year-olds in contrast to a 54% turnout for 18-24-year-olds although it is worth urging caution due to the small sample size. Furthermore, evidence from Austria implies that 16 and 17-year-olds were more likely to vote than 18-20-year-olds. However, another study from Norway suggests that 16-17-year-olds are likely to be less “politically mature” than older voters.

Nonetheless, even if 16 and 17-year-olds do vote proportionately more than 18-24-year-olds, and even if that creates the habit of voting which sustains itself through one’s lifetime, the bigger problem of the lack of detailed political education will persist. This reiterates our call for political education before the discussion of votes at 16 is had.

Places that have votes at 16:

  • Scotland (councils, Scottish parliament elections)
  • Jersey
  • Guernsey
  • Isle of Man
  • Estonia (local elections)
  • Austria (local elections)
  • Brazil
  • Argentina
  • Germany (some states)
  • Malta

TalkPolitics will be releasing a comprehensive research paper on votes at 16 debate in the coming months.

Sources and Further Reading:

Image: John Keane @Flickr 

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