Making the case for votes at 16

Labour’s manifesto promise for “a free vote in Parliament on reducing the voting age to 16” has once again forced the issue of voting age back into the news.

Our guest writer is Patrick Newton of YouGov

Labour’s manifesto promise for “a free vote in Parliament on reducing the voting age to 16” has once again forced the issue of voting age back into the political foreground. By the age of 16, many Britons are living independently, paying income tax and some work for the country itself – as civil servants and soldiers – but they cannot vote until the age of 18.

Again, we must approach the question – what justification is there for retaining the age of 18, rather than 16, as a condition for the voting right? Sure enough, Labour’s promise has triggered a flurry of responses on both sides of the debate. Some, however, are more robust than others.

Demos has already weighed in on the side of reducing the voting age. The think tank used a poll by Ipsos/MORI of 594 16-17 year olds as the basis for several of their reasons for lowering the voting age: maturity, competence, a desire to vote and growing political awareness.

However, there are two good reasons to doubt that this empirical data is robust enough to give strong support for the think tank’s conclusions:

First, Ipsos/MORI’s sample size of 594 people is too small to be accurately representative of how the nation thinks. YouGov very rarely uses a sample size under 1,000 because the smaller the sample size, the higher the margin of error becomes. The margin of error for Demos’ sample size is over 4% at a 95% confidence – that is, they can be 95% confident that the results will be within 4% of the national figures.

Secondly, a survey of only 16-17 year olds cannot support or contest a distinction between this age group and older age groups. The grounds for refusing the 16 to 17 year olds the vote might be that their characteristics differ significantly from the age groups who are afforded the right to vote (ie 18+ age groups). We cannot know how 16-17 year olds fare relative to other age groups unless we also know how other age groups perform – we must survey other age groups too.

YouGov was interested in establishing whether there is an empirical basis for the current voting age, but had the foresight to dodge these two weaknesses. We carried out a survey of 3,994 GB 14-25 year olds from 18th-25th November 2009, so the margin of error for this sample is approximately 2% at a 99% confidence. We can be 99% confident that our results are within 2% of the national figures.

We looked at the same, time-worn arguments that are metronomically produced by the anti-reform lobby: that 16 to 17 year olds are incompetent and immature, apathetic and lack interest. Some have tried to combat these arguments on theoretic grounds, perhaps proposing that even if these characteristics are true of 16-17 year olds, they are not sufficient grounds for refusing them the vote in a democracy.

YouGov is not interested in this – we wanted to see if the criticisms themselves were borne out in the 16-17 population, and how it compares to the age groups around it.

YouGov found that the above reasons for refusing the 16-17 age group the vote have at best tenuous empirical foundations. 16 to 17 year olds in Britain are straightforwardly either innocent of being incompetent, immature, apathetic or lacking interest, or where they are, they are no more culpable than other age groups. Since these cannot form a justification for treating the age groups differently, affording one the right to vote but not the other, if the anti-reform lobby want to justify their position, they must do so on other grounds.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.