Votes at 16: A Call for Consistency

Votes at 16: A Call for Consistency

I’m not an expert on child development. I don’t know whether 17 is the right age at which we should let people get a driving license, or whether this should be changed to 16 or 18. Similarly, I don’t have a strongly informed opinion on other similar issues, such as the fact that:

  • 18 is the age you can buy a pint of beer in a pub
  • 18 is the age you can use a sunbed
  • 18 is the age in which you’re allowed to watch the film ‘Alien’
  • 17 is the age at which you can be interviewed by the police without an adult present
  • 18 is the age at which you can buy fireworks
  • 18 is the age at which you can place a bet in a betting shop
  • 18 is the age at which you can buy tobacco
  • 18 is the age at which you can open your own bank account.
  • 18 is the age at which you no longer have to be in some form of education or training.
  • 18 is the age at which you can fight for your country (you can join the army earlier, with parental consent, but not be deployed until 18)

Similarly, I’m not an expert on whether you should continue to need your parents’ consent to leave home or get married up until the age of 18. I’d note that the general trend seems to be to make most of these ages older (for example, the age limits on tobacco, education and sunbeds were all increased within the last 15 years).

What I do know though, is that voting to decide who governs our country is an act of greater importance and greater responsibility than any of the things in the list above. It is inconceivable to me to say that someone who can’t be trusted to watch an 18 film, to buy a pint or to have their own bank account should be trusted to vote. The argument that they should is simply to undervalue the franchise, which has been won at such cost over past centuries

If someone wants to come forward and argue, with evidence, that the limit for all of these things is too high and that we should lower them all to 16, I’m prepared to give them a fair hearing. I might actually agree. But as long as people are pushing votes at 16 in isolation, whilst treating 16 year olds as irresponsible in many other less weighty matters, I will treat it as what it is: a blatant piece of gerrymandering.

21 thoughts on “Votes at 16: A Call for Consistency

  1. I do agree with you that everyone calling for 16 year olds to be given the vote appears to have first conducted a poll on 16 year olds, and only progressed to this opinion on finding they would be the recipients of such votes. However, since agreement is boring I would also observe that government favours those who vote (e.g. pensioners vs. students) and we might therefore expect it to unfairly treat those who can’t vote.

    1. I agree students haven’t had it great recently (though interestingly they do vote – it’s non-student young people who bring the average down). Where are the areas where you feel the government has been particularly harsh to 16 and 17 year olds?

      1. I don’t think it’s only ‘harsh to 16-17 year olds’ that matters: a 16 year old will presumably often vote based on policies that will impact them when they’re 18+.

        Given policies take time, rational voters would vote based on policies that affect people a bit older than them: on this model it’s rarely in anyone’s direct interest to vote to make things better for students as current students won’t benefit and students-to-be are usually too young.

        Obviously in real life there are mature students, parents, and of course people vote on principle not self-interest.

  2. For completemess (well, more items in the list, at least):

    * 16 is the age at which you can buy fuel at a petrol station
    * 16 is the age at which you can be bought alcohol with food in a licenced premises
    * 16 is the age of sexual consent
    * 16 is the age at which you can be married without consent from parents
    * 17 is the age at which you can drive
    * 16 is the age at which you can ride a moped

    1. You need consent from your parents to marry at 16.

      There are still some other things neither of us have listed (e.g. buying knives), plus things you can only do at 21!

  3. I agree on the conclusion, and that 18 is the sensible Schelling point for voting. Most of the arguments for 16 don’t actually explain why we don’t go to even younger ages which suggests they’re not well thought through, and agreed they look opportunistic.

    But I do think it’s different to the other age limits, in that the other restrictions are to protect the individual and there’s therefore more of a precautionary principle. Maybe we think some 16 year olds are responsible for voting, cigarettes and mortgages and others aren’t. The difference is that 16 year old making the wrong decision about voting won’t get them stuck deep in debt, addicted to cigarettes etc. etc.

    1. Isn’t that the essence of it though? If we don’t think under 18s can make decisions for themselves responsibly, how can we say that they can make decisions for the whole nation?

      1. Because the nation isn’t vulnerable to a few 16 year olds making stupid decisions the way those 16 year olds themselves are, and democracy isn’t really about sensible decision making anyway.

        Like you I “utterly reject the idea that the right to vote is in any way linked to education, or a person’s ability to critically analyse information.” But I don’t see voting as about ‘moral responsibility’ (not sure what you mean by this) or inherent rights so much as
        – Peaceful, clear-cut transfer of power is possible without a police state
        – Blatantly hated governments get kicked out
        – Governments have to worry about what all kinds of people think
        – People channel their anger into leafletting rather than armed insurrection

        For the first two the extent of the franchise isn’t that relevant and 1831 England was basically fine. For the latter two there’s an argument to include 16 year olds. Though the fact they grow up and that adults have children makes their exclusion less bad as there’s both indirect representation and the prospect of personal representation.

  4. I’m not sure this is actually about maturity – it’s more about the ability to critically analyse information. Admittedly, I have severe doubts and the amount of critical analysis that is performed on many issues, not just voting – one might even expect 16 year olds to be better at it than, say, 60 year olds who didn’t have as long in education (though I’m not convinced that critical thinking is necessarily taught very well at the moment).

    If you start restricting based on who “can be trusted” to make a rational decision on voting, then what do you do with those suffering from, say, dementia? Such limitations hardly seem credible (or palatable).

    The argument for people staying in education/training until 18 isn’t that they’re not mature enough, but to give them (and therefore the workforce) more skills. The 16-18 education is substantially different from pre-16 – students are generally trusted to leave school to go into town, for example. It’s not uncommon for sixth formers to ask me about the policy side of science (much more so than at GCSE), so they’re definitely thinking about politics – and are actively encouraged to do so.

    Finally, where do you stand on taxation without representation? 16 years is the age at which you might reasonably pay tax – there’s no lower limit, but full-time education rules biggish earnings out pre-16, whereas an apprentice might conceivably pay tax.

    I’m not 100% decided, but I do tend to fall on the side of @Lafayette’s comment that voting is a bit different to e.g. buying a knife – and the long-term implications of referendums (and, to some extent, elections) are potentially much greater for younger people. It might be simpler to make all voting the same age.

    1. I’ll add that the timing does smack of gerrymandering, which isn’t something I’d support. Though I don’t think it’s as cut and dry as you’ve made out.

    2. All voting is already the same age, at least for elections where the conditions are set by Westminster!

      Forcing people to stay in education is all about maturity/responsibility – otherwise we’d respect their choice not to be. There’s certainly a debate to be made that the objective you set out (upskilling) may be worth it, but we’re very clearly taking, but we’re still saying we don’t consider them responsible enough to respect their choice.

      Interesting point about taxation and representation. Though wouldn’t linking the right to vote to having paid taxes open up a large can of worms? I don’t think I’d want to go down that route.

      Finally, I utterly reject the idea that the right to vote is in any way linked to education, or a person’s ability to critically analyse information. It’s about moral responsibility and the right of all adult citizens to have a stake in our society. These are nothing to do with education or intelligence: a bricklayer is, and should be, given equal worth to a learned professor.

      1. Sorry, I probably came over a bit too strongly there at the end.

        I appreciate this probably isn’t your view, but I find the increasing tendency of ‘anywheres’ to imply that their greater education confers higher moral worth and right of determination over those less educated to be truly repugnant. Hence the (over?)reaction.

        1. You’re correct that I’m not in any way suggesting that the right to vote should have anything to do with education or intelligence, and I wasn’t trying to imply that you were. I can see how my first paragraph might have been misconstrued, but it was meant as an aside about critical thinking in general. (Lazily written, perhaps…)

          My point was that the aim is for people to be able to critically evaluate evidence and come to a reasoned decision – in all walks of life, not just politics. That’s what I’d argue is a major objective of the education system as a whole, and possibly a partial definition of maturity. While that sort of training is a feature of some post-16 training, I’m not that applies to all routes, many of which are very technical.

          I understand your point about the extention to compulsory education in England, but it’s confused in its implementation. Part of the implementation, as I understand it, has been to force people to keep taking Maths until they get the equivalent of Maths GCSE grade C (or 4 in new money), and to effectively force those who have achieved that to do the equivalent of an A/S Level in “Core Maths” (this has its own issues!). That’s very clearly “upskilling”, rather than “maturity building”, though I’ll admit that a maths education is about far more than just arithmetic.

          Part of me says that the post-16 education/training is a step up from pre-16 in many ways, so it is not unreasonable to assume that those students have reached maturity. Another part of me agrees with you that 16-18 year olds are still maturing. Hence why I don’t think it’s cut and dry. I’ll note that in other parts of the UK compulsory education continues until 16, not 18 (and, of course, in Scotland the voting age is 16).

          My taxation without representation comment was more of a facetious point, as the UK already falls foul of that principle anyway (and will fall further foul next March, but that’s another issue!).

          And my comment about voting ages being the same was that it would probably make more sense to reduce the age to 16 for all elections, not just referendums (if such a change took place).

          1. Ah, I think maybe we agree but have been talking at cross purposes on the continued education point. Do we agree that the purpose of the education is upskilling but that the reason we insist on it is because we don’t think they’re responsible enough to decide to upskill of their own accord?

            ‘Anywheres’ essentially refers to Remain-type voters, but broadened so it’s clear it’s not just in a Brexit context. See e.g. this article:

            It came from May’s quote about citizens of the world, but the distinction seems to be a useful second axis (much more so than authoritarian/libertarian) to describe British politics at the moment, with the two sides having very different values. My four political tribes post essentially has a left right and a somewhere anywhere axis.

          2. To be honest, I think the raising of the compulsory education age was an attempt to lower the number of NEETs – with a “duty” on businesses to provide training, apprenticeships etc. It was also meant to increase the number of vocational courses, since so many young people couldn’t access the training required for some industries (there was a similar increase in the number of jobs requiring a degree, or degree level, qualification).

            So it was an attempt to provide more training opportunities. Its similar to the idea of 50% of people going to university, in that sense, so not about maturity – though I’ll acknowledge that it does provide a “safety net” for those who would otherwise fall out of the system.

            Is also not clear that it worked as intended – in 2016 35% of 16-24 year olds were NEETS (though that may include a significant number >18,to be fair) – see

  5. Iain – thanks for this. While I generally agree with all that you write, I find the word “gerrymandering” a bit harsh – first, that the term generally refers to constituency boundaries, not to questions of eligibility to vote. Secondly, gerrymandering implies manipulation of boundaries into a shape that is unnatural. Here, everyone agrees that there has to be an arbitrary age limit for voting, the disagreement is on where that limit is drawn. Thirdly, gerrymandering is performed only for political gain. There are also positive reasons for lowering the voting age – like encouraging political participation in young people. It’s certainly true that the voting age is a decision with political consequences – there clearly is a political landgrab here. But the voting eligibility criteria have been altered many times during the last 200 years – this is a legitimate debate, not a manipulation.

    While generally I agree that 18 is a reasonable limit, it is interesting that while the voting age in 1918 was generally 21, it was 19 for service personel – making a link between serving one’s country and voting. “No taxation without representation” is another important historic principle – although as you say, paying taxes shouldn’t be a prerequisite to voting. In all, I think this is an interesting and important debate – not just “gerrymandering”!

    1. Like ‘myriad’ or ‘decimate’, gerrymander has a strict technical meaning and a broader, more general meaning.

      I do agree there’s a legitimate debate – as we’re having here – and did acknowledge that one could be had. But when people (not on this blog) are pushing something that greatly benefits them, and it’s at odds with the stance they take on similar issues, it’s fair to suggest they may be motivated by self interest.

      Fascinating fact on the 19 limit in WW1!

  6. I don’t agree that consistency is necessary here. It doesn’t follow that because the law suggests an individual should be 18 to buy a pint they should also be 18 to engage in consensual sexual relations. Voting to decide who governs the country may be an act of “greater importance and greater responsibility” than the activities on your list, but it is arguably neither as important nor as significant as raising a child. Some cursory internet research suggests that there is a difference between the development of “cold” and “hot” cognition – or the ability to make decisions in a calm situation and reason logically with facts verses the propensity to be influenced by emotional state. By the age of 16 cold cognition is said to be more developed than hot. I guess the age of consent is set at 16 on the assumption that, with the benefit of sex education, 16 year olds are trusted to take informed, rationale decisions while sober. But, to mitigate the risk of hot cognitive decision making, they are prohibited from buying alcohol.

    Setting aside the argument for consistency, I’m inclined to support a lowering of the voting age. I stood as the Labour candidate in my school’s mock election at the age of 16 and studied thoroughly the Labour and Conservative manifestos. On the whole, the election was conducted in an informed, rationale way, although interestingly (despite Labour’s 1997 landslide victory) in my school the Conservative candidate won. I would have thought that citizenship classes (or whatever general studies in school is now called) provide an excellent forum for discussions to inform cold cognitive decisions about how to vote. Perhaps that experience at the age of 16 would also help voters in later years to make more rationale choices (although that’s perhaps a point for a seperate discussion).

    Finally, on the subject of “anywheres”, if you haven’t read it already, can I recommend David Goodhart’s book The Road to Somewhere – I nearly mentioned it in response to your post on political tribes. It’s his take on the political faultlines that help to account for the rise in nationalist/populist sentiment in the UK and elsewhere.

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