Digestible Politics: Should 16-Year-Olds Get The Vote?

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Leo Shire argues that if political parties are going to be making decisions that directly affect 16/17-year-olds… they should be allowed to vote.

This was an election where it really seemed like anything could happen.

The last general election took place on 6th May, 2010. I was studying for my GCSEs, and it was the first election I’d lived through where I was actually paying attention. This was an election where it really seemed like anything could happen. It took place in the midst of a recession and the country was losing love for Labour and their 13-year reign. The Conservatives had rebranded with a fairly fresh-faced David Cameron and Liberal Democrats were experiencing a surge of popularity.

…most of my school year was aged 16 and legally able to get married…

By 6th May, most of my school year was aged 16 and legally able to get married, drive a moped, have sex (and potentially babies), rent accommodation, join the armed forces, drink beer or wine with a meal, earn minimum wage, claim benefits and, if necessary, trade or sell scrap metal.

But not vote.

The year before, Liberal Democrat MP Jo Swinson had put forward an Early Day Motion on 16-year-olds to get the vote. It seemed like the topic was constantly in the news; in fact BBC3 even showed a documentary with Eastenders actress Melissa Suffield, then 16, arguing that those her age should be entitled to vote. But ultimately, general elections rolled around, and 16-year-olds were still shut out of the process.

…general elections rolled around, and 16-year-olds were still shut out of the process.

The coalition government have made big changes to education. One of the most startling was the rise in university fees from £3,000 a year to £9,000. What previous generations paid for their entire stint at university, students now spend the same on one single year of attendance. And guess which school year was the first this change was implemented? Mine. The same year that had a majority of 16-year-olds who were shut out from voting in the election. I, along with students across the country, protested against these rises, but to no avail. Protesting was the only way 16- and 17-year-olds could get their voices heard, having not had any power to vote for or against policies that directly affected us.

When decisions like these are being made that affect both the immediate and distant future of 16-year-olds, I feel like it would probably a be good idea if they got at least some power in how these decisions are decided. So why shouldn’t they?

 ‘18 is the age of majority for many things and I think that’s right.’ David Cameron

A group of young voters recently put this question to David Cameron. His response was ‘18 is the age of majority for many things and I think that’s right.’ Sure, but this ignores the many legal milestones set in place for those at 16.

Last year in the Telegraph, 16-year-old student Ruby Osman argued that people her age don’t deserve the vote. ‘The fact is, so many of the key policies that the election will be fought on just aren’t integral to our everyday lives,’ she said, and stated ‘I’m still living with my mum – and have roughly £17 in my bank account. And I’d challenge you to find many 16-year-olds who aren’t in the same boat.’

 …it seems disappointing that they should be denied a voice just because they’re not that bothered about tax.

It’s true. There aren’t many 16-year-olds who aren’t still living at home, and with new government policy teenagers have to be in some form of education until they are 18 years of age. Yet while the majority might be in this position, this ignores the rising number of young homeless citizens and the fact that, in any case, it is still legal for a 16-year-old to live alone should they so wish and so long as their guardians grant them permission. Just because most teens will still be living comfortably at home should not mean that those who are not should be unable to vote for issues that directly affect them. And when it comes to policies regarding the education system or the NHS, policies that are relevant to all teenagers, it seems disappointing that they should be denied a voice just because they’re not that bothered about tax.

‘Perhaps [Ed Milliband] and the other politicians could stop telling us they want to hear our voices, and start offering targeted and sympathetic policies that directly affect our lives,’ Ruby argues. It’s a sentiment I agree with. There are not enough policies relevant to young people. But if that were to change, without the vote at 16 it would be a repeat situation of what happened to me: young people are not able to have any say in the decisions that directly affect them.

‘Perhaps [Ed Milliband] and the other politicians could stop telling us they want to hear our voices…’

The wider problem is that the current young voters, the 18-25-year-olds, seem like a disenfranchised group.  Voter turnout last election was low in that demographic providing little evidence that 16-17-year-olds would utilise their vote should they receive it. This could be for a combination of reasons. Perhaps it is because the main political parties are not seen as trustworthy to this age group leading young people to think that not voting is a better option. Perhaps it is an educational problem. Children are not learning enough about politics in schools and so young voters are confused about who to vote for. Perhaps, even, it is as Ruby says, and that politics just isn’t seen as integral to a number of young voters’ lives.

 …voting is a right, not an obligation.

Yet here’s the thing: in this country, voting is a right, not an obligation. Whether someone chooses to go all guns blazing and vote in every election, from local to European, from general to parliamentary, or do a Russell Brand and abstain from voting altogether, is their prerogative. The right is in the choice, not in the practice itself. Arguing that young people won’t vote if they are given the opportunity to is not a reason to deny them of the opportunity (and, judging by the amount of 16-17-year-olds that turned out for the Scottish referendum, they aren’t as unlikely to vote as one might think).

In this general election there are some parties who want 16-year-olds to get the vote, and others who don’t. It’s a debate that hasn’t progressed much further since the last general election. Yet whichever party does get voted in, one thing is guaranteed. It won’t be up to the sixteen year olds to decide.

What age should people be allowed to vote? Let us know on Twitter: #digestiblepolitics @rifemag

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