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.

12 Responses to “Making the case for votes at 16”

  1. Susan Nash

    RT @leftfootfwd: Making the case for votes at 16: http://bit.ly/aSmgff

  2. PostBureaucratic Age

    RT @leftfootfwd: Making the case for votes at 16: http://bit.ly/aSmgff

  3. Silent Hunter

    This shows just how desperate Labour are to fiddle the voting system – as if their Postal Voting Scam isn’t enough for them.

    If there are still a few ‘honest’ Labour voters out there – they should be voting for the Lib Dems; not the abjectly CORRUPT LABOUR PARTY.

    You lot only want the 16 year olds vote because they’re too young to realise who the Stassi were.

  4. Evan Price

    We have an age at which you reach majority for all sorts of purposes and that is 18 in England and Wales. It has been set for just over a century when it was reduced from 21.

    From 18 you can enter into a binding contract, buy alcohol and certain other items, get married without the consent of others, as well as vote. In Scotland, they have chosen 16, although I believe that effect of this is limited to entering into bunding contracts.

    The age of majority is based on an age that has been chosen to represent when a child becomes an adult. I doubt that any empirical evidence was taken before the current age was chosen – but given the campaigns against ‘child soldiers’ that has resulted in the UK choosing not to send people who do join the military into harms way until after they are 17 1/2, it does seem odd to assume that we reduce it for voting while increasing it for sending troops into harms way. At the same time we are told that we are increasing the age at which you can leave school … and not acting to reduce it for other purposes.

    The justification for reducing the age is usually based on things that currently are being changed to increase the age from 16 – and as for taxes, the choice of 16 is pragmatic and related to employment – if the age at which children can leave school were raised to 18, then the need to tax them would disappear and so it could be said that the age at which taxes were payable should rise to 18 too.

    I am not persuaded that there is any significant case for reducing the age for voting … but that does not mean that I would not look at the evidence produced – and the evidence produced that I have read so far (votes at 16, for example) simply are not, for me, persuasive. That does not mean that some children do not have the maturity, skill and knowledge required (many will and do have all of those things), merely that we have to choose an age and it is currently 18 and the onus is on those who seek change to persuade, and they haven’t persuaded me.

  5. Ali Unwin

    Patrick Newton of @YouGov makes the case for changing the voting age to 16 http://cot.ag/bqFo5F

  6. Thomas Byrne

    Labour have blocked two Private Members Bills in the last 13 years on the subject of votes at 16, should anyone trust them to carry it out should they be elected?

  7. Don Quixote

    Even among the 18 year olds at my school, a lot of people can scarcely name the three major parties… Though of course you could argue that lowering the voting age will encourage people to start thinking about politics at an earlier age.

    I’ve yet to be convinced there is a serious case for votes at 16. It’s not so much that I think there are strong arguments against it as there just not seeming to be much point. Especially given the school leaving age is being raised to 18 anyway.

    While we’re on the topic of reform on voting, why not give the vote to EU citizens who have permanent resident status in the UK. Surely this is no less than fair, given that these people pay tax and given that the option is already available to commonwealth citizens?

  8. Mr. Sensible

    Evan, what about driving? I think you can start to drive at the age of 17, which of course you pay tax on.

    On the school leaving age, I thought you had to be in education or training until 18?

    I support this idea; if young people are inerested in politics there’s not much of an issue.

    And Don, some people might not be interested in this by the age of 30!

  9. Evan Price

    Mr Sensible, driving is a licensed activity … not a question relating to the age of majority.

    I believe that school is currently mandatory until you are 16; there are plans to raise it to 18, but they are not law yet.

    EU citizens can vote in local and European elections, but not elections to Parliament … they retain their rights to vote in their own national elections – the UK restricts that to a certin number of years after you depart the UK, but I believe that others EU states allow their nationals to vote for much longer – in the last French Presidential elections Sarkozy held a rally in London.

  10. Dean Rodrigues

    “incompetent”, “apathetic” and “lacking interest”.

    if you stuck those three descriptions on a page and asked what you were describing, an answer along the lines of “the majority of the British voting population” would probably fit the bill.

    Of course, the fact that the apathy is not just found in 16 and 17 year olds probably provides some kind of basis for why – outside of political blogosphere and the usual sensationalised newspaper articles – a remarkably large part of the population, of voting age and in the teenage bracket, probably couldn’t care less…

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