In the run up to the general election, YouthSight will be posing questions to young people across the UK about issues that affect them. The first in our series explored student voting intention. This is the second piece, looking at whether young people think that 16 and 17 year olds should be given the right to vote.
Reducing the voting age to 16
Remember the Scottish referendum? Not only was it the first time in Scottish history that a full independence referendum was held about its future autonomy (the 1974 and 1997 referenda related to devolution), it was also the first time that 16 and 17 year olds were allowed to participate in the democratic process. By reducing the voting age, Scotland joined a small band of other nations with a lower voting age (Austria was the first EU country to reduce their voting age to 16, in 2007 and a number of South American countries - Brazil, Argentina, Cuba and Ecuador – extended voting rights to 16 year olds back in the last century).
Debate about the voting age in the UK is not new. In April 2004, the UK Electoral Commission concluded that the voting age in the UK should be lowered. This sparked numerous debates and discussions however Scotland is the only UK nation to have implemented change; a change that many regard as being successful. John Robertson, Labour MP for Glasgow North West, recently spoke on the topic in the House of Commons:
“The one thing that was clear about the referendum in Scotland was the amount of young people that were getting involved … Is it not time that we got the rest of the country on board and got votes for 16- and 17-year-olds?”
With the backing of politicians and policy makers alike, we wanted to know what current young people thought about the proposal. In particular we wanted to ask the most educated young people who could be affected by the policy change – university applicants.
We recognise that university applicants cannot be used as a proxy for the rest of the youth market; however the results are indicative of a more knowledgeable group of young people.
We asked 500 university applicants…
Nearly two thirds of university applicants do not believe that the voting age should be reduced to 16.
When asked why the voting age should not be reduced, opinion was split. Nearly half (49%) of the all young people questioned said that 16 and 17 year olds are not knowledgeable enough to vote while a similar number of young people felt that 16 and 17 year olds are not mature enough to vote (43%), have not had enough life experiences to vote (44%) and that the vote should reflect the age at which a young person becomes an adult (43%) i.e. at the age of 18.
University applicants who were in favour of reducing the voting age (36% of our sample) were more definite about the reasons to change the law. Nearly three quarters (74%) wanted voting age to come into line with other laws such as the age to join the army, the legal age to marry and the age at which you are liable to start paying taxes and national insurance. A similar number of university applicants felt that the voting age should be lowered because many of today’s political issues affect younger people (72%).
For both camps, young people are looking for consistency and for the voting age to be relevant and reflect life experience.
Having enough political knowledge at the age of 16 and 17 was called into question by university applicants. Those who were not in favour of lowering the voting age felt that votes would be cast naively, with little understanding of the parties and policies. This is a familiar rationale and one that the media and politicians often espouse. Looking at the views of those who were in favour of lowering the voting age, we found a more optimistic point of view. Two thirds in favour believe that young people would become more politically adept if the voting age was lowered while 42% of those in favour of reducing the voting age, believed it would increase the possibility of young people casting a vote while they are still young (and not waiting until they in their twenties to cast their first vote).
From our point of view at YouthSight, we were surprised that so few university applicants wanted the voting age to change. Historically, university students are more likely to vote compared to young people not in education and their enthusiasm to vote was recorded in the YouthSight Student Vote article in February 2015. As things stand, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens have pledged to reduce the voting age to 16 in their manifestos, while the Conservatives have agreed to hold a parliamentary vote on the lowering the age to 16 if they were to win the next election.
About this research
Fieldwork for this article was conducted on the 19th-24th March 2014. Questions were placed on our Future Student Omnibus which interviews 502 young people who are looking to apply to university next year. The YouthSight Future Student Omnibus sample framework is nationally representative in terms of age, gender and school type attended (fee paying / state).