Give 16-year-olds the vote, demands Salmond

Vote winner: First Minister Alex Salmond with first-time voters in the Scottish referendum © PA

Though Scotland’s First Minister accepts defeat for the independence campaign, he says the referendum was a victory for teenage voters. Is it time to lower the voting age across the UK?

Like many Scottish 16-year-olds on the morning after the independence vote, seniors at Nairn Academy arrived at school feeling particularly tired. Some had got up at 4am to watch the results, others had not been to bed at all. Some were jubilant, others ‘devastated’. Yet all were proud to have taken part in probably the most important election in their country’s history.

The UK voting age is 18, but the SNP leader Alex Salmond struck a deal with David Cameron to allow 16 and 17-year-olds to take part in Scotland’s referendum. Some complained that younger voters couldn’t make informed decisions, but, in the event, most were struck by the intelligence and diligence with which they made their choices.

Many Scottish schools held mini independence referendums, allowing pupils to organise campaigns for both sides and to engage in spirited and well-informed debates. Form rooms and Facebook pages were filled with discussions about the merits of central banks, the longevity of North Sea oil reserves and the nature of power at Westminster.

Salmond says young people’s engagement with politics was a huge positive aspect of the referendum. He has called for the voting age to be lowered to 16 for all future UK elections. While Labour and the Liberal Democrats would support the move, the Conservatives so far have resisted.

Only a few countries, such as Argentina, Brazil and Cuba, have a 16-minimum voting age. In 2007, Austria became the EU’s first country to join them. It found that 16-year-olds were more likely to vote than 18 to 21-year-olds, and that these younger voters were then more likely to take part in future elections.

Supporters of a lower voting age hope that it would kickstart participation in a political system with which many are disenchanted. The next UK general election is in May 2015, so changing the minimum age in time would be possible, but difficult. But would it be wise?

From loom bands to Miliband

Salmond says the referendum showed that 16-year-olds can make a huge contribution to politics. Teenagers will care more if they are given the opportunity to have their say, and they are the ones who will have to live with the legacy of decisions made today. Older voters often vote tribally, but youngsters are open-minded and judge parties by their policies, not past performances.

Yet others point to physiology, which shows that the brain does not reach maturity until 25. Teenagers lack the comprehension and experience to make big decisions and their parents will likely shape their politics, so parents will effectively gain extra votes. As the young do not own property or pay taxes, they do not have a big enough stake in society to make its decisions.

You Decide

  1. Should the voting age be lowered to 16 in the UK?
  2. ‘Making informed decisions has nothing to do with age.’ Do you agree?

Activities

  1. Hold a class debate on whether lowering or even raising the voting age would be a good idea. At the end of the debate, consider whether the level of reasoning and maturity your class showed has made you rethink your position.
  2. Write a letter to your MP arguing for or against lowering the legal voting age.

Some People Say...

“Never mind age, only those with a high IQ should be allowed to vote.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Did young people influence Scotland’s referendum?
Many believe Alex Salmond only lowered the voting age because he thought younger people were more likely to vote for independence. A survey found that of the 100,000 16 to 17-year-old voters, 71% voted for independence. However, they counted for just 3% of all voters, and even if they had all voted for independence, it would not have changed the result.
Would lowering the age have a big effect on UK general elections?
The move would enfranchise 1.5m young people. Given the last general election was decided by a difference of 2.1m votes, young people could potentially have a major effect on the result. However, critics say Scotland’s referendum turnout was uniquely high and a general election would not inspire young people in the same way.

Word Watch

Labour
Labour supports lowering the voting age and it may form part of their 2015 election manifesto. It was a Labour government which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 in 1969 in the hope it would help its re-election chances. The Conservatives won the next election.
Elections
While the turnout among Austrian 16 to 17-year-olds was lower than the average for the electorate as a whole, politicians believe the younger voters were more engaged than those just a few years older than them.
Votes
A similar argument was made before women (over 30) were given the vote in 1918 that their husbands would in fact make the choice for them.

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