Sunday, February 25, 2007

Votes at 16


I was recently invited to a Secondary School in Wolverhampton to talk to about two hundred fourteen to sixteen year olds about the Votes at 16 campaign.


I have published the text of my speech below. However please remember that I am a supporter of Votes at 16 and that I was asked to prepare a talk which considered both the arguments for and against votes at 16. If someone is looking form an opinion on this issue I would recommend that they look at or read Give Wayne Rooney the vote, http://www.votesat16.org.uk/, The Real Democratic Deficit and Votes at 16 Issues Briefing.


A number of the arguments that I will make for or against reducing the age at which people can vote were also used in 1971 when the minimum age was reduced from twenty one to eighteen.


At first a number of people of all ages, gender, marital status, communities, political views, race or religion will say that they are not interested in politics or that politics does not affect them. However if we think about the number of people who are concerned about or affected by BBC, Education, Environment, Food, Health, Sport, Transport and so forth we will realise that politics does indeed concern or affect everybody.


People like me who support the idea of reducing the minimum age at which people can vote will argue:


First and foremost there is a basic democratic principle that there should be no taxation without representation. Young workers pay income tax and national insurance, young shoppers pay VAT and the government has no problems collecting the money without reference to date of birth. Not letting sixteen and seventeen year olds express their political views through the ballot box gives the impression to young people and to the rest of society that young people’s views are either not valid, or not as valid as the views of older citizens. This implies that young people are not real citizens.


Second, there is a lack of consistency about the age at which a person gains various civil rights. If people are old enough to marry, die for their country, change their names, and pay prescription charges and full fares on public transport, why should they not be able to vote for the Men and Women who form the laws and regulations which govern these issues. I realise that some of these are actions for which people under eighteen do need parental consent.


Third, Citizenship education is now a compulsory part of the national curriculum in England at key stages three and four and it is an optional part of the curriculum for key stages one and two. So by the time someone is sixteen they could have had eleven years of Citizenship education. Young people reaching the age of sixteen will have a great deal of knowledge of how the British political system works, perhaps a better knowledge and understanding than most people that are older. Yet they are denied the right to use this knowledge and understanding for at least two further years. Lowering the voting age to sixteen would allow a seamless transition from learning about elections, democracy, the importance of voting, the different electoral systems, pressure groups, topical political issues and so forth to putting such knowledge into practice.


If we stick with the status quo some people who may have been enthused or motivated by citizenship classes will, in fact, have to wait much longer than two years for a general election. Someone who turned sixteen in June 2005 will be twenty-one by the time of the next general election.


A poll commissioned from YouGov by the Social Market Foundation in 2002 showed a link between the age at which people first vote in a general election and their inclination to use that vote. People who turn eighteen in the year leading up to an election are significantly more likely to vote than those who turned eighteen in the year after an election and have therefore had to wait up to five years. The Social Market Foundation poll looked at the turnout for young voters of different ages in the 2001 general election. It found a dramatic difference between 27-year-olds and 28-year-olds. Turnout among 27-year-olds was only forty nine per cent; among 28-year-olds, it was sixty five per cent. One explanation is that the first group was under eighteen in the 1992 general election, and therefore had to wait five years to influence the choice of a government. The 28-year-olds, by contrast, had turned eighteen in time for the 1992 election and went to vote with enthusiasm. This enthusiasm carried through to 1997 (when seventy per cent voted compared to sixty four per cent of those who just missed voting in 1992) and had diminished only slightly by the 2001 election. This "birth effect" was also found among those going to vote for the first time in 2001. Among 22-year-olds, who had waited four years to vote, the turnout was fifty four per cent; among 19-year-olds, it was as high as sixty eight per cent (nine per cent above the national average). Lowering the voting age to sixteen cannot erase the “lottery of birthdays”, but it will ensure that everyone can participate in a general election by the time they turn twenty one. If it is true that those who “vote young vote often”, then the argument that lowering the age at which you can vote will decrease turnout is weak, since in the long run it will have opposite effect.


The advent of the internet, together with an expansion of the number of television channels has led to a huge increase in the amount of information available to people of all ages, but to young people in particular as news organisations can now tailor their news to a younger audience. The age at which young people are developing a range of political and issue viewpoints is getting younger and it is right that this should be reflected in the age at which they should become entitled to vote in elections. Some people claim that young people find it difficult to differentiate between fact and opinion and so they could easily be misled by what they hear, read or see in the media or on the internet.


Research shows that younger people are less likely to vote than older people. Research by the Electoral Commission in 2001 found that, whilst overall turnout in the General Election 2001 was 59.4%, turnout among those aged 18-24 it was just 39%. The Commission found that, in common with those aged twenty five and above, many younger voters had little interest in politics, but also found that a significant proportion of younger voters were not registered to vote. It is often argued that by extending the franchise to sixteen and seventeen year olds, turnout is likely to fall further. However I would argue that as the research by the Social Market Foundation showed that we could tackle lower turnout by lowering the voting age and the problem of people not registering to vote is different. You will find that many minority groups such as the young, BME etc are not registered to vote and this should be looked at separate from the debate on lowering the voting age.


Many also argue that older voters know younger people who they do not consider to be sufficiently mature to cast a vote. They ascribe this trait to all those under the age of eighteen. There are also a number of sixteen and seventeen year olds who do not consider themselves mature enough to vote.


Many opponents of lowering the voting age argue that those who are entitled to vote do not do so simply out of their own interests, but also bearing in mind the greater good and the needs of society as a whole. They also argue that many young people are too innocent of the world and that older people know what is best for sixteen and seventeen year olds.


This argument is the same as that which was used in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by those opposed to the extension of the franchise to women and members of the working classes.


It is argued that young people themselves show no desire to see a lower voting age and that an extension of the franchise to sixteen and seventeen year olds would be of interest and benefit to just a few, rather than the many.

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