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Should the UK voting age be reduced to 16?

Associate Professor, Matthew Clayton, Department of Politics and International Studies, Professor Dennis Leech, Department of Economics and Dr Alex Smith, Department of Sociology

Youth parliament

Should the UK voting age be reduced to 16? Should it only be reduced when matters that concern minors are under discussion? Associate Professor Matthew Clayton from the Department of Politics and International Studies, Professor Dennis Leech from the Department of Economics and Dr Alex Smith from the Department of Sociology offer their perspectives.

Associate Professor Matthew Clayton, Department of Politics and International Studies

“Political decisions are important because they often significantly affect the lives of many in and outside our society. Accordingly, our electorate must be one that is able and willing to vote responsibly, with an understanding of, and interest in, the issues at stake. The key issue is whether, on average, 16-year-olds have sufficient political maturity.

I have worked on this issue with a sociologist at Oxford University. We considered the available British data on whether there is an ageing effect with respect to political maturity, which we measured by interest in politics, political engagement, political knowledge and the coherence of people’s beliefs: are 16- and 17-year-olds as mature as, say, 30-year-olds, or does political maturity increase with age? The findings of our research are that political maturity does indeed increase with age until the mid-20s and then stabilizes. Given that we believe that political maturity is the key issue in this debate, our conclusion is that the voting age should not be lowered to 16. You can read our arguments, research, and conclusions here.

Some might challenge our conclusions by arguing that, though political maturity should be the determining factor in deciding the voting age, the indicators we use to measure maturity are inadequate. Alternatively, some might suggest that, although we have shown that they are less politically mature than 30-year-olds, 16-year-olds are sufficiently mature. That kind of response asks us to consider whether our democracy can cope with some loss of maturity in the electorate. My judgement is that we ought not to lower the political competence of the electorate, especially when 16-year-olds have to wait only a maximum of two years to have the opportunity to vote. Others might come to a different conclusion.

Should the voting age be reduced when political decisions are being taken that concern children? Some people who argue that we should lower the voting age for decisions that relate to children appeal to the principle that all those affected by a policy have a right to vote on that policy. The all-affected principle supports reducing the voting age for children. It also favours allowing those who live in other countries to vote on British foreign policy. However, the all-affected principle does not seem to be a plausible principle. When political decisions affect an individual, that person’s interests should be taken into account, but it does not follow that she automatically has the right to influence the decision. Again, political maturity seems to be the relevant basis for conferring the vote.

Even if children and young people are not entitled to vote, those who do have the vote have a responsibility to vote for policies that treat children with equal concern and respect. Some propose a consultative parliament for young people, or a children’s ombudsman, so that the views and interests of those too young to vote are registered. More attention should be given to these initiatives, because they are likely to be more beneficial to young people than lowering the voting age to 16.”

Professor Dennis Leech, Department of Economics
“One way of looking at a voting rule is to ask whether it will improve decision making. We might think of this in two ways: whether it makes it more likely that correct decisions are made by the voters or whether decisions taken by voting are the best in terms of the preferences of the voters.

The first is called epistemic voting – voting to determine the truth – which is what a court jury has to do. Theory tells us that a majority decision taken by a larger number of voters will be more likely to make a correct decision provided each voter’s competence means he is more likely to be right than wrong. The question is whether sixteen year olds have this basic competence. If they do not then extending the voting age will not improve the quality of our democracy in this sense.

The second reason for voting is called procedural voting – where the purpose is to make a decision that most closely corresponds with the preferences of voters. If there are two candidates it is easy – just choose the one supported by the majority. There is always a clear decision so extending the voting age to sixteen will not alter that.

But if there are more than two candidates in an election then decision making by voting becomes complicated. In fact it becomes very complicated. Voting can lead to the ‘wrong’ candidate winning an election. And the result can depend on the voting rule by which the election is held. The results can be surprising. For example under our ‘first-past-the-post’ or plurality system for electing MPs in a general election, if there are three candidates, the one who is least preferred – or even detested – by a majority of voters can be elected.

And decisions taken by pairwise voting can be inconsistent. It can happen that in a vote between candidate A and candidate B, A wins, and in a vote between B and candidate C, B wins, but then if there is a vote between A and C, C wins. This paradox depends on the preferences of the voters but can happen surprisingly often.

Different voting rules (for example the Alternative Vote, or voting on candidates in pairs) can lead to different winners, so the result depends on the voting method chosen as much as the preferences of the voters. There is in fact a mathematical theorem called Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem that proves that there can never be a perfect voting rule.

This problem often leads to the franchise being restricted, to prevent this kind of inconsistency. Therefore there is a trade-off between the democratic ideal and clear decision making.

The implication of this for extending the vote to sixteen-year olds is that if the preferences of this group are likely to be much different from those of other groups, then there is an increased likelihood of inconsistent decisions being taken by voting. That is not a good argument however because the democratic ideal of one-person-one-vote should apply to everyone.”

Dr Alex Smith, Department of Sociology
“Throughout the history of electoral reform, in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, the minimum age from which someone has the right to exercise a vote has been the subject of debate. With the passage of the Representation of the People Act in 1969, the legal voting age was lowered from all adults over the age of 21 to those 18 years and older. This reform reflected changing attitudes towards young people in wider society. It also signalled a larger transformation in how people understood the rights, roles and responsibilities of young adults in their late teens.

This, then, is where the question of whether or not to reduce the voting age below 18 properly resides. In twenty first century Britain, a 16 year old can consent to sexual activity and get married; obtain a National Insurance Number or join a trade union; leave home and apply for a passport without parental consent; choose a GP and consent to medical treatment. And with parental consent, a 16 year old can also join the British Army and run the risk of being sent abroad to fight.

But one of the very few rights currently denied to 16 year olds is that to cast a ballot in a UK General Election. This, in my view, is unjust.

It seems contradictory – even hypocritical – for society to deny the vote to 16 year olds who are already entitled to participate fully in many parts of civil society, such as the trade union movement. More importantly, this fails a simple ethical principle given that, denied the right to vote, 16 year olds in the military cannot hold to account the very political leaders who could decide to deploy our Armed Forces around the world to defend our national interest.

With all these ‘rights’ come responsibilities, and these responsibilities cut both ways. If as a society we believe young people are old enough to join the Army when they turn 16, we have a responsibility to treat them in the same way as every other adult. To do otherwise is wrong and diminishes us a society.

In a handful of countries, those aged 16 and over already have the vote. These include Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador and Nicaragua. Closer to home, the three self-governing British Crown Dependencies of the Isle of Man, Guernsey and Jersey allow 16 year olds to vote. Furthermore, next year, my daughter will be 16. She lives in Scotland and will have the right to vote in the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. I believe that this is a good thing. More importantly, I also think it is her right."

Associate Professor Matthew ClaytonAssociate Professor Matthew Clayton works in the Department of Politics and International Studies and is Director of the Centre for Ethics, Law and Public Affairs. Matthew’s interests in both teaching and research lie in the field of political philosophy. He works on several questions concerning distributive justice—how benefits and burdens ought to be distributed between different individuals—as well as issues concerning the relationship between religion and politics. A few years ago, he published a book, Justice and Legitimacy in Upbringing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), which considers several questions about the moral and political status of children and tries to identify the principles that should govern education and upbringing.

Professor Dennis LeechProfessor Dennis Leech is based in the Department of Economics. He is Director of the Voting Power and Procedures programme, an External Associate member of the Centre for the Philosophy of Natural and Social Science at LSE and Research Associate of the Centre for the Study of Globalisation and Regionalisation, Warwick.

His research interests include voting power analysis, with special reference to better understanding weighted voting systems through the use of power indices. An emerging field, Dennis has made substantial original contributions to the field both in methodology and in application. He has analysed voting power in international organisations which use weighted voting systems, particularly the IMF and the European Union council of Ministers. Dennis is also interested in share ownership and corporate governance.

Dr Alex SmithDr Alex Smith is a Senior Leverhulme Research Fellow in Sociology at the University of Warwick as well as an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Sociology at Kansas University. Alex has held postdoctoral fellowships at Birmingham, Edinburgh and Keele Universities in the UK. He has a PhD in Social Anthropology from Edinburgh University and edits the New Ethnographies book series for Manchester University Press.

Alex possesses sociological expertise on both American and British politics and conducts ethnographic research on politics, religion and science in both countries and has been funded by the British Academy, the British Council, the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the Leverhulme Trust and the New York-based Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. He is engaged in long-term ethnographic fieldwork in the greater Kansas City metropolitan area as part of a four-year research project he is leading entitled ‘Science, religion and the making of publics in the UK and US’. This project forms part of the major Leverhulme Trust-funded research programme ‘Making Science Public: Challenges and Opportunities’, an interdisciplinary collaboration being led by Nottingham University with colleagues from Sheffield and Warwick Universities.