Should under 18s be allowed to vote?

If you have to pay taxes and can have a family at 16, then surely you should be able to vote! But do you have enough maturity and life experience at this age?

What rights do you have at 16?

How we measure maturity

Officially, your teenage years end at 18 in the UK and by then, you’re thought to have reached maturity. But what does that actually mean? What happens to your brain during your teens and how does it affect your decision-making abilities? 

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Animation of the brain

What is maturity? Cognitive vs. psychological maturities

Broadly speaking, being mature means being able to make informed decisions. So at 18, you’re thought to have the cognitive (logical reasoning) and psychological (control over your emotions and desires) maturities to know how to behave in society and to be responsible for your own actions. 

Let’s take the example of the right to vote. At 18, you’re supposed to be able to decide which political candidate best represents your ideas of how society and the country should run.

The cognitive maturity required for this is the ability to understand what the political candidates are putting forward (i.e. what their policies are and how these will affect different groups in the population), and then make a sensible choice between them.

The psychological maturity needed is the ability to resist the want to please your family and friends by voting for a certain party through peer-pressure. And more than this, to resist the temptation to vote for a candidate simply because he/she is an engaging public speaker rather than because they have the most carefully considered policies. 

Of course, you don’t suddenly become mature on your 18th birthday, and not everyone matures at the same rate. Your ability to make decisions evolves gradually as your brain develops.

The mysterious workings of the teenage brain

Before puberty, your brain grows and the number of neurons and connections it has, steadily increases. But even when it’s reached its adult size, it keeps on changing.

One of the main changes during your teenage years is that you lose unnecessary connections between neurons through a process called synaptic pruning. This might sound bad but it’s actually a very helpful process because useless connections are removed whilst necessary ones are strengthened. This allows your brain to become more and more effective at dealing with the world around you. 

One of the most important changes during your teens is the development of your cognitive brain, the prefrontal cortex (located at the front of your brain, behind your forehead). Your cognitive brain is in charge of:

  • making balanced decisions, 
  • planning for the future,
  • interacting and understanding other people, 
  • preventing you from doing reckless, inappropriate things. 

Neural pruning during this important time of your life makes you better and better at all those things.

But your cognitive brain develops at a slower rate than your emotional brain, the limbic system (deep inside the brain).

The emotional brain deals with feelings and rewards (pleasurable things) and is particularly active when you’re a teenager. Because of that, you’re eager to learn new things and interact with people outside your family. But it also makes you want to be liked by people and look for immediate pleasure.

To learn more about this interesting area, take a look at the Oxford Sparks animation below: 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dISmdb5zfiQ

How does the development of the brain affect your ability to make decisions?

Because of the different development speeds of your cognitive and emotional brains, the way you make decisions is different from adults. By measuring cognitive and psychological abilities at different ages, researchers have found that you don’t reach cognitive and psychological maturities at the same time. 

So whilst your ability to reason logically (our cognitive maturity) is reached around 16, your emotional brain doesn’t reach psychological maturity until your 20s and 30s! This means that at 16/17, you’re as able as adults to make rational decisions, such as solving a math test or understanding the key arguments of different political candidates during an election. However, it’s likely that you will find it harder to:

  • recognise risky situations and avoid them, 
  • control your desires (going for immediate pleasure rather than long-term benefits)
  • resist peer pressure (ignore the influence of your friends and family and make your own decision). 

That said, of course, every brain develops at a different rate and some people reach maturity faster than others. You will see amongst your friends that some are more capable of making reasonable choices than others.

Society decides that you reach maturity at 18. But do you think that’s true for all types of decisions?

Former US politician, Bev Perdue once said: "The most important thing you own is your vote".

Former US politician, Bev Perdue once said: "The most important thing you own is your vote". 

Should under 18s be allowed to vote?

With a recent general election and two referendums in the UK- one of which (Scottish independence) extended the vote to 16 and 17 year olds – does it make you wonder if it’s time the voting age was lowered to 16?  
 

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The word 'vote' written in wooden Scrabble-style letter pieces

At 16 you can get a job, pay taxes, marry, have children, join the Army and fight for your country. At 17 you can also drive a car. But you can’t vote till you’re 18. Is this fair?

Dr. Elias Dinas, (Associate Professor in Comparative Politics, University of Oxford) says before we think about that we need to consider the differences between young people aged under 18 and those over. Young people cannot be seen as one single group.

Still living at home

“When you’re between the ages of 18 and 22 you’re likely to have left home, for uni or work. You probably won’t have time for politics as you’re busy starting a new life, finding somewhere to live, making new friends, possibly settling into a new area.” You may also move around a lot at this age.

“Whereas at 16 and 17, most young people are still living ‘at home’ with parents who vote - the older you get the more likely you are to vote. So a 16 or 17 year old may be influenced by their parents voting and do it because their parents do. Thus they form the habit of voting early.”

If the first time you’re allowed to vote is between 18 and 23 you might not bother. This is one of the reasons for lowering the voting age - people will get into the habit of voting early on so more will vote. 

Should voting be made compulsory? 

With young people much less likely to vote than older age groups, would it be more democratic if everyone was forced to vote? “Britain has a liberal tradition which means most people want to reduce the state’s interventions into their lives, not add to them. So I don’t this would ever be popular in the UK.”

That said, Dr Dinas explains that: “There are some interesting findings on early voting experiences. People who don't vote are different from people who do. They tend to be poorer and when they are forced to vote, such as in some Swiss elections, they tend to vote for the rich paying higher taxes so the poor are better off - what’s called redistribution of wealth.

"We know voting once makes you more likely to vote in the future. So if your first vote was made compulsory, that might have a long term effect and could, in theory, improve the quality of democracy and policies.” But he doesn’t think it’s likely to ever be popular in the UK. 

Should age be the only criteria for voting?

In the past, age wasn’t the only criteria for voting. It was also based on how much you earned, the property you owned and gender.

Only men could vote in UK elections until 1918. And when women first got the vote, they had to be 30 and over. It wasn’t until 1928 that the voting age (21 at the time) was made the same for men and women. This is what’s called ‘universal suffrage’. The voting age was reduced to 18 in 1969 and the first general election in which 18-year-olds could vote was 1970.

“In a democracy such as ours [in the UK] unless someone is severely incapacitated by mental illness everyone should have the right to vote. Even with prisoners, I’m not sure to what extent they shouldn’t be allowed to vote. Age should be the only criteria in a democracy. Otherwise, how do you decide who can and can’t vote?” adds Dr Dinas.

But voting isn’t just about age

It isn’t just age that allows you to vote though. You have to register first. And it’s up to everyone to ensure that they actually do this. However, registering has been made quicker and simpler now. It can be done on your smartphone or tablet.

Too young to understand?

One of the arguments made against lowering the voting age is that 16 and 17 year olds lack the necessary knowledge and maturity to make this decision. But citizenship education has been on the national curriculum in England since 2002 and it became compulsory in July 2015. It’s taught from ages 11 to 16 and some of its aims include to make sure everyone is:

  • aware of their rights and responsibilities as citizens
  • informed about the social and political world
  • articulate in their opinions and arguments
  • active in their communities

Do you think citizenship lessons would have more meaning if young people could vote at 16? Has your school or college ever held a mock election?

Also many voters today didn’t benefit from citizenship education as it didn’t exist when they were at school...yet, they can vote!

Referendums

When 16 and 17 year olds were given the vote in the Scottish referendum in 2014 it was said that made them more active and involved. It was exciting for them and they enjoyed being part of it.

There was also a much higher turnout than for general and local elections. The Electoral Reform Society cites this as one of many reasons for lowering the voting age as 16 and 17 year olds proved they were quite capable of taking part. Partly as a result of younger people voting in the Scottish independence referendum voting was then extended in Scotland to 16 and 17 years olds who can now vote in local and Scottish Parliament elections. But not in general elections. 

One of the reasons given in favour of a lower voting age is that the younger you are, the longer you have to live with the consequences of a vote. This is the case made by some about the EU Referendum in 2016. The older you were, the more likely you were to vote Leave. But it’s young people, who tended to favour Remain, who have to live longest with the result. (And this aspect influenced some older voters too!)

An EU flag with the Union Jack revealed through a tear in it.

Lord Andrew Adonis, a former academic at the University of Oxford, is going to try to get a bill passed in Parliament that will not only give the vote to 16 and 17 year olds it will also ensure everyone aged 16-21 is automatically registered at their place of education and ballot boxes will be placed in schools and colleges so they can vote there too. He agrees with Dr Dinas that it’s good to get the voting habit early!

But what do you think? Is it time 16 and 17 year olds were given the vote? If so, for what reasons? If you’re under 18 and could vote, do you think you would? 
 

What can we learn about voting from other countries?

  1. The voters
    1. Elections are an important part of how our governments work as they allow us to decide who will lead our country/state. But not everyone is allowed to vote. In the UK, all British, Commonwealth and Irish citizens aged over 18, can vote. In countries such as North Korea, Belarus, Russia, or Saudi Arabia, many people aren’t allowed to vote because of political reasons. We call this ‘being disenfranchised’. But even in democratic countries like ours, people can get disenfranchised, for example, when their names are not on the list of voters. In the 2017 general elections, hundreds of students in Newcastle couldn’t vote as their names were not on the electoral lists. But there are many other restrictions that we forget about. For example, most countries prohibit prisoners from voting. In the US, nearly 6 million people can’t vote because of the crimes they committed. The other common restriction is for people with mental disabilities. Members of the military are also banned from voting in Turkey, Egypt, Venezuela, and Colombia. Other groups that can’t vote include judges and prosecutors in Egypt and Somalia. In the UK members of the House of Lords can’t vote. Why? Because they already have a say in politics by being in parliament, so by electing members of the House of Commons their views would be represented twice!
  2. The voting age 
    1. The referendum for Scottish independence in 2014 was the first vote in Scotland where 16- and 17-year olds could take part. A year later, the Scottish parliament passed a law that lowered the voting age in Scotland to 16. This is not the first country to do this though. 16-year olds can vote in district elections in the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey. This is also common in local elections in Norway, Switzerland, and some German regions. For some places, it all depends on how they define adulthood. For example, although adulthood in Hungary is considered to begin at 18, you get the right to vote at the age of 16 if you marry, because this lifestyle choice then makes you an adult! Other countries where you can vote at 16 are: Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador, and Nicaragua. In East Timor, Ethiopia and Indonesia you can vote at 17, in Japan and Taiwan, you can vote at 20, whilst in Singapore, the voting age is 21. In the United Arab Emirates, you have to wait until you’re 25 to have your say in politics! The reasons behind different voting ages are often historical – it's simply tradition. But more and more, it’s linked to the shape of a population– the older our societies get, the more important it is for younger voters to have their voice heard in politics. 
  3. Voting: a right or a duty?
    1. In more than 30 countries around the world, voting is not only your right but also your legal duty. In other words, you have to vote unless you want to pay a big fine for not showing up. Why? Some governments believe that without a high ‘turnout’ (i.e. participation at elections), elections can’t represent what most people think. In countries where voting is required, such as Belgium, Australia, or Turkey, over 95% of people usually vote. In Britain, where you can decide whether you come to the polls or not, the turnout is much lower - usually between 60% and 70%. However, in the June 2017 elections, this figure rose to 68%, which is pretty high for our standards. It’s thought that many of these new voters were aged 18-24. It might seem like a good idea to force people to vote because the more people express their views, the more likely the result represents the general opinion of all citizens. But if we were to do this in the UK, some people argue that we’d need to make it easier to register to vote. Every year thousands of people are turned down at the polling stations because they had forgotten to register. Another key argument against forcing us to vote is that voting is our right and by not showing up, we can also show how unhappy we are about politics – which many choose to do. It’s our right so it’s up to us whether we choose to use it…what do you think?
  4.  Registering to vote  
    1. Registration processes differ from country to country. For example, every US state has a different registration procedure whereas in Canada you simply come with your ID on the day and vote. In most European countries, you have to register in advance, so that your name is included on what’s known as the ‘electoral roll’ (i.e. the list of names of all registered people that are eligible to vote in a district). But in Belgium, Australia, Sweden, and Germany, voters are automatically registered once they turn 18. In these countries, you just need to bring your ‘polling card’ (i.e. a document that states where you vote and who are the candidates) and ID to the polling station. This is quite different to the US and UK, where there are strict deadlines for registration before every election, which many people miss. The dark side of registration is that in some undemocratic countries, registration is used as a method to make sure only political supporters of the ruling party can vote. For example, in the 2011 elections in Nicaragua, only members of the ruling party received the documents that allowed them to vote. This was clearly against the peoples’ human rights.
  5. The timing and frequency of elections 
    1. The timing of elections matter. Imagine if elections were organised on Christmas Day. How many people would come and vote? Probably not many. But, equally, imagine a situation where you would be asked to come and vote every month. You might get fed up and not show up. This seems quite obvious, but there’s a lot of science behind when to organise elections and how often. The best example is the United States, where presidential Election Day is on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. Why? In the 19th century when this rule was introduced, American farmers needed at least a day to travel to the city in their area to vote. They could not take a day off during the harvest and in the spring, so November worked well. Sunday was church day and Monday did not work because church sermons could have influenced the results. Friday was the Jewish Sabbath and Wednesday was market day. So Tuesday usually worked the best. The UK also held elections on Tuesday until 1931 when the day switched to Thursday. Why Thursday? The change to Thursday was meant to give the government some time over the weekend to form a new strategy and present a plan at the start of the next week. So the UK now holds elections on Thursdays from 7am to 10pm to make sure that everyone can make it before or after work. But not everyone thinks this is the best choice. In fact, most European countries hold elections on Sundays to make voting easier for those in work and because religion no longer plays such an important role in our lives. 
  6. What is so special about the Austrian elections? 
    1. Since 2007, all Austrians as young as 16 have been able to vote in all elections organised in the country. This makes Austria the only European country where citizens under 18 can vote in national elections. (Yes, 16-year olds can also vote in Scotland but not in national elections.) So why has Austria lowered its voting age? The answer is quite simple: the Austrian population is getting older. There are more 65-year-olds than 15-year-olds in the country. So giving younger people suffrage (the right to vote) is simply a way to help maintain the balance between the young and old generations. But many critics say that young people don’t have enough knowledge or experience to make political decisions. Plus they are said to be easily manipulated by the media to vote for popular or radical parties. Really? Well, the Austrian experience tells a different story. In the first Austrian elections in 2007, 200,000 new young voters stopped the populist political parties from gaining power in Austria. Some researchers later looked at the behaviour of the youngest voters, and found that the 16-year-olds were, in fact, more interested and active in politics than the 18-year olds! 
  7. The length of political campaigns 
    1. During the time Americans elect their president, you could have hosted approximately 4 Mexican, 7 Canadian, 14 British, 41 French, and 50 Japanese elections. How is that possible? Canadian campaigns usually last around 50 days, British around a month, while Japanese only 12 days. Of course, it’s hard to say exactly when campaigns start but it’s still the case that American presidential elections are some of the longest in the world. Is this a good or a bad thing? Well, let’s look at some of the facts. Long campaigns cost a lot of money. In 2016, the American presidential race cost around 4 billion pounds. Instead, the British Brexit referendum cost nearly 150 million pounds and the cost of elections in Japan is around 40 million pounds. Some experts think that shorter campaigns may produce happier voters but also less enlightened ones. This is because in short campaigns you don’t have to listen to politicians fighting for too long but you also don’t have much time to understand their key arguments and make up your mind about whom to vote for. It seems, that a Goldilocks scenario (remember the story of neither too soft nor too hard?), i.e. neither too short nor too long – may work the best. 
  8. Why is there so much fuss around the first-past-the post?
    1. You may have heard a lot of debate about our ‘first-past-the-post’ voting system. But how does it actually work? So this is when whoever gets the most votes in one electoral region (called a constituency), wins one seat in parliament. Using this system means it doesn’t matter whether the difference is one vote or thousands – the winner (i.e. who gets past the imaginary ‘post’ first) takes it all. The other votes don't count. For example, in the UK in 1974, the Conservatives beat the Labour party by more than 200,000 individual votes but they got less seats in parliament. Canada, India, and the United States adopt the same system too. Others, such as New Zealand as well as Wales, Scotland and Ireland chose to adopt something else. So what are the other options? The first one is the proportional system where each political party is given the number of seats that is proportional to the percentage of the vote it received. This means that the distribution of the seats is fairer and more political parties can enter the parliament. But this system can also lead to weaker governments. For example, Italy, which uses this system, has had governments lasting on average less than a year. The other option is 'the alternative vote' that Australia uses. Australians first rank the candidates in order of preference. Candidates are elected outright if they get more than half of the first preference votes. If not, the candidates who got least votes are out and their votes are redistributed according to the second (or next available) preference. It’s a pretty fair system but because it’s so complicated, voters have a hard time understanding how to rank their preferences strategically, something that is quite easy to do in our system.

What would you include in your manifesto?

A manifesto is a formal document which states what a political party would intend to achieve if voted in. In this video, the British Youth Council set out their key policies- would you prioritise these issues too? 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MA1RBSYB_dg

Should the old decide the future of the young? 

In what ways have different generations been shown to vote differently? How did this affect 'Brexit'? And what does this all mean to the debates surrounding giving young people a greater voice in politics? 

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It’s common knowledge that political opinions of young people tend to differ from their grandparents and even parents. In elections, young voters prefer more liberal options while older generations tend to go for more conservative political ideas. 

In fact, Prof. Geoff Evans and Prof. James Tilly (both from the University of Oxford) found that in British politics ‘those aged 21 are, on average, 20 percentage points less likely to support the Conservatives than those aged 81’. 

To better understand the difference between liberal, conservative and other political views, take a look at the video below:

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JlQ5fGECmsA&t=3s

 

Brexit

This generational divide was most clear recently in the 2016 vote to leave the European Union (aka Brexit). Over 75% of people aged between 18 and 24 voted to remain in the EU while only 42% of those over 50 voted to stay. Overall, the leave camp scored a marginal victory with 51.9% of the vote.  

According to YouGov polls, there seems to be a distinct gap in how different age groups understand the benefits and downsides of the EU. University students and people under 30 saw several key benefits in being part of the EU, such as the freedom to travel and work across Europe. And they were also more likely to embrace a more multicultural worldview and the idea of a common European identity. 

Instead, those over 65 were generally more protective of their British identity, traditional values and UK sovereignty (the country's ability to make and enforce its own laws).  

The video below explores some of these viewpoints in more detail: 

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4p7KECC47Qc

 

So what does this all mean? 

In the aftermath of Brexit, it’s still not entirely clear what the future holds for people of any age living in the UK or for UK nationals living abroad. 

Many have suggested that leaving the EU will affect young people greater than older generations due to the changes and restrictions in employment and educational opportunities across Europe. 

Unlike their grandparents who will not have to live with the lasting economic and political consequences. 

And so the Brexit vote has served to further highlight the need to consider the ‘generational divide’ in political preferences and the issue of whether young voters should be given more voice in politics. 

As our societies get older through medical advances and improved lifestyles, some argue that it has become increasingly important for younger voters to have their views heard in politics. 

Getting involved

Some believe that the views of young people are particularly side-lined in our societies because they’re not represented in major political bodies such as national and local parliaments. 

Although there’s an active youth parliament in the UK, in 2015 only 7% of elected MPs were aged between 18 and 29 – the age bracket with the smallest representation in government. 

Critics tend to blame young people for their lack of interest in politics, best demonstrated by their not showing up for elections. For many years there’s been the ongoing problem of ‘electoral turnout’ as the number of younger voters is generally much lower than that of older voters. 

Possible reasons suggested are that 18-22 year olds are often moving around due to education and jobs etc. and can’t keep up the registration process. And many may feel that the political decisions made about some reforms in education and the housing market are presented in ways that don’t quite speak to their current problems.

The result is that it is the older generations that make all the important decisions. So extending the voting rights to younger voters (16 and 17 year olds) could help to balance out this disproportionate voting participation.

That said, 16 and 17 year olds make up less than 3 per cent of the population (1.6 million). And so those who think we should keep the current rules on voting argue that a change would not affect electoral results because young people do not vote anyway. 

So it’s not straightforward…

Is change possible?

Experience from other countries such as Austria and Scotland, where under 18s are able to vote, has already shown that 16 and 17 year olds can be very engaged in politics if given the opportunity. They can make informed judgements about various political options. 

The most recent general election in the UK (in June 2017) saw a particularly high turnout of young voters (over 64%) - much more than expected. One of the possible reasons is that the outcome of the Brexit vote motivated more young people to engage with politics than before. 

Greater access to digital and social media technology means that many young people have multiple information sources at their fingertips to help inform their decisions - more so than what older generations had. That said, this can make things more confusing in some instances especially when filtering through possible fake news stories. 

And so although it seems unlikely that the Brexit vote would have ended up differently if under 18s voted, the debates that followed have offered an opportunity to revisit an important aspect of our society i.e. the representation of the views of the young versus the older generations. 

The older our populations get and the more information young people get at an earlier age through developments in technology and access to media, the more important this question will become.

What do you think?

Reference: 

Tilley, James, and Geoffrey Evans. 2014. ‘Ageing and Generational Effects on Vote Choice: Combining Cross-Sectional and Panel Data to Estimate APC Effects’. Electoral Studies 33 (March): 19–27. doi:10.1016/j.electstud.2013.06.007.
 

Should under 18s be allowed to vote?

  • Your brain is ready

    Your ability to reason logically (cognitive maturity) is reached around 16. This means that you’re as able as adults to make rational decisions, such as solving a math test or understanding the key arguments of different political candidates during an election.

  • Reckless decisions

    At 16/17 your emotional brain hasn’t reached psychological maturity. This means that you may find it harder to recognise risky situations and avoid them, control your desires (going for immediate pleasure rather than long-term benefits) and resist peer pressure (ignore the influence of your friends and family, and make your own decision). Does this mean you’re not mature enough to vote for how the country should be run?

  • Picking up the habit

    When you’re between the ages of 18 and 22 you probably won’t have time for politics as you’re busy starting a new life. Whereas at 16 and 17, most young people are still living at home and may be influenced by their parents voting. If the first time you’re allowed to vote is between 18 and 23 you might not bother. But if the voting age was lowered, people might get into the habit of voting early on - so more will vote.

  • Young people don’t vote

    16 and 17 year olds make up less than 3 percent of the population (1.6 million). So, those who think we should keep the current rules on voting argue that lowering the voting age would not affect electoral results because young people do not vote anyway.

  • Living with the consequences

    The younger you are, the longer you have to live with the consequences of a vote. This is the case made by some about the EU Referendum in 2016. The older you were, the more likely you were to vote Leave. But it’s young people, who tended to favour Remain, who have to live longest with the result. (And this aspect influenced some older voters too!)

  • Beware: Fake News

    Greater access to digital and social media technology means that many young people have multiple information sources at their fingertips to help inform their decisions - more so than what older generations had. However, this can make things more confusing in some instances, especially when filtering through possible fake news stories. It’s possible that younger voters (under the age of 18) might be more influenced by fake or heavily biased news stories online than older voters are.