What should be the minimum voting age for the EU referendum?

The EU referendum is getting closer by the day. A broad range of issues are now the subject of public discussion. For example, we now know the wording that PM David Cameron favors on the ballot paper, which is important because, some would argue, the phrasing of a question influences the reply a person is likely to give.  However, past experience seems to show that the wording matters very little if people are already familiar with the issue. [1]

Another big point of discussion which the looming vote has reignited is whether 16 year olds should be given the right to vote.

Among the most frequently mentioned pro arguments:

1. Consistency: If at 16 a person is eligible to marry, work full time, pay tax or join the army and fight in wars, they should also be given the right to decide on such matters. [2]

2. Engagement: improving the level of political engagement could be achieved by lowering the voting age to 16, combatting apathy among young people and leading to more interest in politics.

“The exclusion of 16 and 17 year olds from elections is fuelling the disengagement of 18-24 year olds. The longer young people are denied involvement in the formal democratic process, the less chance there is of engaging them ever. There is no evidence to suggest that once 18, young people are likely to become more engaged.” – Electoral Reform Society [3]

3. Education: with the introduction of citizenship classes, 16 is an appropriate age to make civic decisions. Being engaged in the political process from this age would also be a reinforcing mechanism which educates people from a young age.

Among the arguments against we take note of the following:

1. Maturity: While some 16 year olds are indeed mature and educated in political topics, most 16 year olds, the argument goes, are not and thus the threshold should be higher. Some put the case that even 18 is a young age for voting, and that a person is truly mature enough to make such important decisions around the age of 25. [4]

Recently, a number of threads on this topic have been started on GovFaces. One of them asks of several Portsmouth politicians:

“Even if 16 and 17 year-olds are given the right to vote in the UK’s ‘in-out’ EU referendum, shouldn’t we be acting now to ensure that (especially young) voters can make an informed decision at the ballot box?” [5]

2. Turnout: because the lowest age groups tend to have the lowest turnouts in elections, a bigger pool with low turnout would actually result in a lower percentage of voters.

3. Consistency: at 16 parental permission is still needed to marry or join the army, so it is unclear why voting should be a basic right at this age. Furthermore,

“If the voting age were lowered, 16 to 18-year-olds might be considered ‘second class’ citizens – old enough to vote but too young to buy alcohol, cigarettes or fireworks and still reliant on parental approval on many issues.” – Andrew Mycock, U. of Huddersfield [6]

While we take no position for or against lowering the age of voting, we are passionate about and working to provide a space where citizens both young and not so young can get information from their representatives and engage in further discussion with them and other citizens. We hope you will join the discussion on GovFaces!