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


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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.