A couple of weeks ago, Cambridge University politics professor David Runciman caused outrage as he suggested that children as young as six should be given the vote. The idea was presented at the end of a lecture on democracy and young people that he gave on his podcast Talking Politics. Runciman illustrated how skewed the democratic process has become in favour of the elderly. His contention is that the only way to redress the balance would be through such a radical lowering of the legal voting age. The proposal garnered controversy, as people started to consider how low we could go.
While the current age at which someone can vote is eighteen, calls to lower that to sixteen have been gaining traction for some time now. Sixteen-year-olds were allowed to vote in the referendum on Scottish independence and their input helped contribute to a record turnout. Yet, calls to extend that to general elections across the country have been resisted, with many attributing it to the Conservative Party fear that more young voters would just mean more Labour supporters. However, considering the growing democratic deficit that Runciman speaks of and the death of political education in schools, has the time come for party politics to be put aside for the overall health of our democracy?
Runciman argues that extending the franchise has always been a good thing. This is something backed up not only by historical precedent, but also ideas such as the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ which says that the more people involved in a decision, the more likely that there’ll be an agreeable outcome. While there are legitimate concerns about safeguarding in terms of lowering the voting age to six, Runciman believes that far from the bad parts of politics trickling down to schools, the good parts of schools will trickle up to politics.
Wherever you stand on that argument, no such opposition could be levelled at lowering the voting age to sixteen, where people already enjoy many of the rights and responsibilities of adulthood. However, if a vote at sixteen is an idea whose time has come, Runciman’s suggestion begs the question, why not lower? For example, twelve is the age when the BBFC says you can go see a film in the cinema on your own, with parental guidance no longer required. Why not award suffrage at twelve?
Autonomy and awareness seem to be the two factors that most influence at what age people should vote. Simply put, people get more uncomfortable the lower the voting age gets as they don’t believe that the child would be casting their vote without undue parental influence, or with enough knowledge of the issues at hand.
The autonomy argument is why Runciman draws the line at six and doesn’t advocate making voting a human right from birth. Six is how old you are when you start primary education, therefore it makes sense as a cut-off point. Clearly, babies neither have the ability nor the awareness to vote. However, beyond six, can we really argue that children don’t have the capacity to put a cross in a box?
Meanwhile, the awareness argument is inextricably bound with education. The belief goes that the younger you are, the less you know. While this can be disputed, with numerous examples of those who are sixteen or younger being more knowledgeable than those who are sixty or older, it somewhat misses the point of why people are allowed to vote.
As Runciman detailed in his lecture, we’ve moved away from democratic participation being a luxury of the elite and educated few. You don’t have to pass a test to vote and we don’t take the vote away from people for being ignorant or uneducated. Therefore, why should potential ignorance or lack of education be an obstacle to giving it to more people? Furthermore, people younger than eighteen stand to be just as affected by the government’s policies as anyone else, why should they be denied a say in influencing them?
If people as young as six don’t possess sufficient knowledge, wouldn’t giving them the right to vote be a great way to change that? It’s something of a chicken and egg scenario. What comes first, people’s interest in politics or their ability to participate in it? Could the latter not lead to the former? With votes at six, Runciman remarks how exciting it would be for a child to start their primary education knowing that they’ll have a say in the political process. Would that not eventually lead to a far more politically engaged and enlivened electorate?
For too long, proponents of lowering the voting age have been forced to justify why sixteen-year-olds or lower deserve the vote. Perhaps we’ve been looking at it the wrong way. Instead, its opponents should be forced to justify why they don’t.