Viewpoints: Can 16- and-17-year olds be trusted with the vote?

Youth Parliament

Sixteen and 17-year-olds may be able to vote in the Scottish independence referendum. But should they?

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Grant Costello

It's not just about capability. Young people rely on public services”

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Grant Costello MSYP, Scottish Youth Parliament (SYP)

Votes at 16 is about accepting 16- and-17-year-olds are smart, rational, articulate people who should be seen as full citizens.

We already accept 16-year-olds are able to make rational long-term decisions because we allow them to work full-time, join the Army, and pay tax. I don't think you can argue young people are able to take the decision to choose to get married or to have children, but are incapable of choosing how to vote.

But it's not just about capability. Young people rely on public services such as transport and schools, but they have no influence over policies which affect their lives - it's no wonder they are disengaged. Lowering the voting age gives these young people the chance to have their say over the society they want to be part of.

Grant Costello

  • Chairs SYP, which says it is designed by young people, led by young people for the benefit of young people
  • Those aged 14-25 represent different areas and voluntary organisations across Scotland

The Scottish Youth Parliament already works with loads of capable, confident and well-informed 16- and-17-year-olds; imagine how many more will be engaged when they all can vote.

Recognising that the important issues equally affect young people, acknowledging they are capable of making decisions, and encouraging them to be part of society - those are the reasons why 16- and 17-year-olds should be allowed to vote.

Grant Costello can be followed on Twitter @GrantDCostello

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Philip Cowley

It's a bizarre way to reinvigorate democracy”

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Philip Cowley, University of Nottingham

Many of the arguments for lowering the voting age are factually wrong.

It is, for example, not true that you can "die for your country but not vote". Those under 18 are not allowed on frontline service.

We also only allow under-18s to join the armed forces with parental permission, because we don't think them old enough to make that judgement alone. Ditto (in England and Wales) for marriage, which under the age of 18 requires parental permission.

So if we're looking for comparisons, then if there is an age at which people are considered "adult" by the state - by which we mean the age at which we allow them to do things, without requiring parental consent and entirely of their own choosing - then that age is more often 18 than 16.

Philip Cowley

  • Professor of parliamentary government at University of Nottingham
  • On government's Youth Citizenship Commission that reported in 2009

When the Hansard Society examined public faith and understanding in the constitution they found just one area where the majority of people said they understood the issue and approved of the current position: and that was having a voting age of 18.

It's a bizarre way to reinvigorate democracy: Find the only issue where a majority both understand and agree, and then do the exact opposite. Polls of those below 18 don't find any great support for lowering to 16 either.

Philip Cowley can be followed on Twitter @philipjcowley

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Ben Page

Most 18 to 24-year-olds don't vote”

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Ben Page, Ipsos Mori

We asked 11-18-year-olds a few years ago whether they thought the voting age should be reduced and actually only half of them thought it should be reduced to 16.

Turnouts are so low amongst 18 to 24-year-olds that just giving votes to 16 and 17-year-olds is unlikely to make a major difference. Most 18 to 24-year-olds don't vote in general elections, they either aren't registered or they don't turn out so their effect is much less than older people.

Eighteen-year-olds try out the vote and then turnout goes down slightly amongst 19 and 20-year-olds. They say it didn't necessarily change as much as they might have liked.

Overall it's the one part of the constitution that most people say they support, having the vote at 18.

Ben Page

  • Chief executive of Ipsos Mori, writer and speaker on leadership and performance management

In our most recent polling we saw actually it's the 25-34-year-olds, who were teenagers when the movie Braveheart came out in the mid-1990s, who are most enthusiastic about independence for Scotland and not the 18-24-year-olds."

Ben Page can be followed on Twitter @benatipsosmori

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Inaki Sagarzazu

Lowering the voting age could re-ignite the interest of the young in politics”

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Professor Vernon Bogdanor, King's College, London

The Scottish Parliament, which has an SNP majority, is likely to give 16-year-olds the vote since it is SNP policy that the franchise should be lowered to 16 for all elections and referendums.

I personally am in favour of votes at 16. It is true that turnout tends to be lower amongst younger voters.

In the 2005 general election, just 44% of 18-24 year olds voted. But those over 16 are subject to tax, employment, and marriage laws as well as the criminal law. In addition, 16-year-olds are at school and may acquire the habit of voting from their civics or citizenship lessons.

By the time they reach 18, many will have left school and forgotten their lessons. So lowering the voting age could reignite the interest of the young in politics.

Vernon Bogdanor

  • Research professor at the Institute for Contemporary British History
  • Written widely on government and politics

But if the franchise is to be lowered, it should be for all elections and not selectively. It should be done after a full debate in Parliament and the country.

Lowering the voting age for the Scottish referendum could endanger the legitimacy of the outcome. If the referendum is won or lost on a narrow majority and survey evidence seems to indicate that the balance was swung by 16- and 17-year-olds, the losers may refuse to accept the result.

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Inaki Sagarzazu

These initiatives are plainly symbolic”

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Dr Inaki Sagarzazu, University of Glasgow

Lowering the age of voting beyond 18 years has been a new trend brought about by what it seems to be an increased political engagement of the under 18 population. Several countries in Latin America have either lowered the voting age or attempted to do so in recent years.

However, with the typical lower participation rate of the younger population it begs the question of what are the motivations behind the implementation of these changes?

Research on voter turnout has consistently found, across different countries and systems of government, that participation at the lower age range is much lower than the average turnout rate.

This means that despite what seems to be an active youth engagement in political activities the reality is that the younger generations vote less.

Inaki Sagarzazu

  • Lecturer in comparative politics at University of Glasgow

This lower participation is tied to an electorate that is on average less interested in politics than older cohorts. However, despite this reality governments in Latin America - and other regions - are actively promoting the reduction of the voting age population to under 18's.

Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Christina Kirchner are amongst the leaders promoting these initiatives. It seems that given the evidence against any significant participatory rate amongst the younger electorate these initiatives are plainly symbolic.



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  • Comment number 420.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 419.

    "I don't think you can argue young people are able to take the decision to choose to get married or to have children, but are incapable of choosing how to vote. "

    Looking at the reasons for, and outcomes of, teenage marriages and pregnancies, I would say this is a perfect illustration of why they should NOT be able to vote.

  • rate this

    Comment number 418.

    16 year olds have enviably strong BS detectors.

  • rate this

    Comment number 417.

    It's a cynical move. By extending votes to a previously unrepresented group the SNP will almost certainly gain greater support within that group.

    If they win the independence referendum they will be in a position to propose a new voting age for the "new" Scotland. But trying to lower it pre-referendum reeks of ulterior motives.

  • rate this

    Comment number 416.

    The youth have to live with their choice at lot longer than us older folk. I just hope they make the right choice, one based on thought rather than the rhetoric of small minded Politicians.

  • rate this

    Comment number 415.

    "As an 18 year old Oxford applicant ... I don't understand ..."

    Donald Rumsfeld (not my favourite person) was right when he talked about "unknown unknowns". When you're young, the world is full of unknown unknowns - and, by very definition, you don't yet realise just how much you don't know. That is why we have laws against paedophiles preying on childern.

  • rate this

    Comment number 414.

    If Alex Salmond is so keen to give under 18's the vote, why didn't he do it for the Scottish location elections this year?

  • rate this

    Comment number 413.

    If 16-year olds are permitted to vote - shouldn't they also allowed to buy cigarettes & alcohol, drive a car, get married without permission, get a creditcard/mortgage and fight in the front line?

    They can't do these things at present because of age limits placed by a government, and if I were 16 I'd only vote for a party that allowed me to do these things.

  • rate this

    Comment number 412.

    "Can 16- and-17-year olds be trusted with the vote?"

    I do not think most can as I doubt that most would understand, or wish to understand, the arguments on either side.

    However, sadly, this seems to apply also to many over 18s who continue to vote tribally against all the evidence. Any HYS with any political slant proves this time and time again.

  • rate this

    Comment number 411.

    Education should come first. Teach politics from age 10. It's criminal that no explanation of how the country operates is taught to kids.
    Teaching should explain how taxes works, the differences between the parties and understanding different views on the pressing issues that are out there. Politics is seen as boring. It should be 're-branded' as it has massive consequences on everyone's lives.

  • rate this

    Comment number 410.

    Frankly, I'm starting to wonder if over-18s can be trusted with the vote, given the endless rotation of the same two parties ad nauseum, both of whom have shown nothing but contempt for the British public in the last thirty-odd years.

  • rate this

    Comment number 409.

    "capable" at 21 ?

    Who 'capable of choice' between doomed?

    Do we choose 'bigger advantage in conflict', or 'fair slice of better cake'?

    Do we choose for 'self today', or self tomorrow', for spouse, for dependants, for friends, for social circle, for class, for culture, for religion, for the planet, against extinction?

    "I was studying politics", but missed the democratic deficit?

  • rate this

    Comment number 408.

    It's insulting so many readers are against 16 and 17s from gaining the vote. This is the age when many people decide to become politically active and take an interest in current affairs.

    Philip Cowley in the article did not recognise that Scotland and England have different laws for 16-17s.

    I personally feel we should be encouraging this age group to become politically aware by granting the vote

  • rate this

    Comment number 407.

    A prisoner can vote, but a 17 year old serviceman/woman cannot?

  • rate this

    Comment number 406.

    @382 'Lionel Mandrake'
    Fair points. Although, if you look around and think about it, you will find there are reactionary bigots in all age groups, including the young.

  • rate this

    Comment number 405.


    I don't think anyone should be allowed to vote unless they can give a valid and concise reason as to the way they will vote. Too many idiots vote for one or the other main parties simply because "it's why my mum and dad did".
    Yes indeed,that'd be true democracy,as introduced & practised by the Ancient Greeks........Modern politicians would hate it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 404.

    It doesn't make any difference until we get proportional representation.Most people did not vote for this current lot and yet they are in power.Same goes for Gordon Clown before them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 403.

    Whether they can be trusted with the vote is something which should be decided by parliament, not by Alex Salmond because he thinks changing the rules will win him the referendum. That's his idea of democracy!

    Having said that, I think Salmond underestimates Scottish16- and 17-year-olds. They would not vote to turn the clock back 400 years and destroy the United Kingdom.

  • Comment number 402.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 401.

    A 16 year old is easily beguiled by anyone who tells them "give me power and I will solve all your problems". That's why the SNP are interested in the demographic, it is the most naive and easily lead. Every religious and political movement aims at youth - their lack of experience makes them an easy catch. For this reason I realise my 16 year old self rightfuly could not vote.


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