The coming of voting age

25 Nov 2013


The definition of a democratic system is at its most basic level one where eligible citizens are given the opportunity at some level to influence government. It is well known rhetoric that ‘democ­racy is the worst form of Gov­ern­ment except for all those other forms that have been tried’ (quick note, it is often thought that Churchill said this, in fact he himself was quoting someone in an extract of his book). Yet democracy is a vast beast as a form of government. It has ranged from what was seen in Ancient Athens, where only a small percentage of the population was given the right to vote, but those who did vote were voting directly; to modern Britain where large sections are capable of voting but their individual vote has little effect. This of course is not the only variation; the American system is wildly different from the British, which of course both use First Past the Post rather than the multiple AV systems available. In fact on the quickest glance one can see that it is almost impossible to cover every aspect of a democracy, what is to be focused on here is a much more topical section; the age of voting.


You may well have heard that the United Kingdom Youth Parliament (UKYP) decided to elect one of its national campaigns as lowering the voting age to 16. Whether or not UKYP will be successful or not is another whole can of worms, but there is a definite sense that the political class is changing their stance on the voting age. Votes at 16 has now gained support within the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party and many smaller parties. If it were to be debated in the House of Commons today however, it would not be a clear cut vote. This, by its very nature, raises some difficult questions on who exactly should be allowed to cast their vote.

There are two main arguments that can be used in arguing to lower the voting age. However, they are not complimentary, and both hold far wider implications than a simple wider voting populous. To outline them in their briefest: 16 year olds are adults; and anyone should be able to vote. Let’s start with the former.

This is the far more widely used argument, it is often put forward that as ‘16 year olds are an active part of society who are also affected by governmental changes in the same way as the over 18 are. They are capable of making their own decisions on many issues, such as fighting in the Army, buying a house, getting married, sexual intercourse etc. Why should voting be excluded from this?’ 

This statement has one of two ways of being analysed; either it is a simple error of multiple laws over the past centuries having different definitions and so on, which has sparked a gap between multiple liberties. Or, on a deeper note, there is a fundamental difference between childhood and adulthood, which is the reason for the discrepancy in voting age. If one is in favour of the first approach, to give the votes to 16 year olds would seem counterintuitive, from a legal stand point it would be far easier to define 18 as when one should receive these liberties for the reason that more become available at 18 rather than 16. This is reinforced by the current trend to place older age limits on certain liberties, consider the rising age limits on smoking, the leaving age of school and calls to now reassess the age of joining the army. If the UKYP tackle votes at 16 from this perspective, they are likely to only lose more liberties, the exact opposite of their aim.

So what of the second interpretation? One would be inclined to conclude that all these liberties mark the coming of adulthood, a coming of age in the legal sense. Then we are left with the argument, at what age does a boy become a man, or a more modern way of phrasing it, when does a child become an adult? The divide verges on completely arbitrary, throughout most cultures and societies it coincides with an approximation of the beginning or end of puberty, take the Jewish Bar Mitzvah as an example. Thus, it would not be impossible to imagine adulthood defined at the age of 16, 18 or 21, and from that a voting age at those levels. It is now surely possible to set the age of adulthood, when one is involved in a society, to such a level that individuals should possess the right to partake in the choosing of their government at 16 instead of 18 as a result.

The coming of adulthood consists of far much more in our present society than the simple liberty to vote; it entitles you to act freely (relative to everyone else) in our society. Therefore, if we accept and argument for votes at 16, we must also conclude that the age to leave school, the age to buy alcohol, cigarettes and (as I recently learnt) cutlery, should all be lowered to this landmark. This is likely to sit less comfortably with the political class who argue for the votes at 16. It would go against the general trend which we have seen in the political world for the last few decades. Enabling those of 16 years of age to be free individuals would be too great a risk for many of the political class to accept.

Of course there is another argument which has the ability to enfranchise 16 year olds. If every member of our society should possess the right to have a voice in choosing their government, then it would follow that no one who is a citizen of the country should be restricted from having the ability to vote.  Upon taking this argument we must give every citizen the right to vote unless there is an intrinsic reason to remove this right. Is age an intrinsic reason? On ones 18th birthday, does a deity come down to earth and transform you into a new being? The answer is obvious; it is a line in the sand dividing child from adult. Yet if the only difference is simply a social status then it would seem pure discrimination. 

The usual justification for this discrimination is that most under 18 would not be informed enough to make a reasonable judgement on politics.  However, to imply that most over 18 would be is a ludicrous suggestion.  Thus, we are faced with a dilemma, how can we empower those who would be informed enough about their society and the political climate to have their political voice heard, whilst keeping those who maybe incredibly ignorant on the subject e.g. your average 8 year old, disempowered? The totalitarian may shout out for the implementation of a test.  I argue that if any individual is empowered enough on election day to make their way down to the nearest polling station and of their own accord choose one name over all others, then that person, no matter what age, is someone who is eligible to vote. 

Of course, there are still problems, how to stop people being bullied into voting and other similar problems. Though, when confronted with these arguments one must always remember that liberty is never easy, it is a constant struggle which never ceases to shed light upon more and more problems; but that is the fun of it. And that is the reason we strive for it. We must discuss, debate and dissect issues such as votes at 16 to ensure that we have the most effective, rewarding democracy possible. Our political system will evolve, as it has done for hundreds of years, and we must be the ones cutting the blade to sharpen our democracy.

By Thomas Soud

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