How Would ‘Votes at 16’ Change the Future of General Elections?

Votes at 16’ is the official campaign calling for a lower voting age. It currently stands at 18, which excludes a number of politically active youngsters from participating in elections. Should it be changed? Or is 16 simply too young to vote? This post explores how reducing the voting age to 16 could change the future of British voting.

The status quo

When people reach the ripe old age of 18 in the UK, they’re officially classed as an adult. They can buy and consume alcohol, serve on a jury, get married without permission and apply for a mortgage, amongst other things. But most important of all is that they’re allowed to vote.

This has been the case since the Representation of the People Act in 1969, which lowered the age from 21 to 18. And do they use it? To some degree. But in truth, voter turnout for the broad 18-24 age group has been pretty poor since the millennium.

In 1992, they had a 66% turnout, which was only slightly below the cross-age average. Since then it has steadily decreased, reaching levels of below 50% in elections from 2001-2015 onwards. In the most recent 2017 General Election, however, there was a surge in youth voter turnout. Often credited to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, YouGov estimates a much-improved 58% turnout in 18-24 year-olds.

Votes at 16

When it comes to Votes at 16, voter turnout shouldn’t really be part of the decision. Whether or not some people use their right to vote shouldn’t be an argument against giving others the right. That’s the stance of the official campaign, which has been supported by Labour, the Lib Dems, the Greens and – more prominently – the Scottish National Party. They lowered the voting age to 16 for the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum and have since extended this to all Scottish Parliament and Scottish local government elections.

So how would it work? Well, it’s quite simple on the face of it. You give 16 year-olds the right to vote by passing a new law in Parliament. But there would have to be a number of changes made in order to adapt.

Voter registration

The first issue with a new set of voters is getting them registered. Much like the turnout, voter registration has been poor for young voters. There were some signs of improvement in 2017, when over a million young people registered to vote in the month after the election was called.

However, lowering the voting age to 16 gives a new opportunity for the country to galvanise the youth to vote. In all UK countries, people turn 16 in their final school year. If schools encouraged voter registration and assisted pupils in doing so, there could be a significant increase.

Also a factor with registration in the last election was social media. Facebook posted a message to all its UK users encouraging them to register on 13th May, just 9 days before the registration deadline. The results speak for themselves, with the Metro reporting a spike of 7,000 registrations in just one day following the message.

If votes at 16 were passed, the electoral commission would surely have to consider this kind of campaigning to improve voter registration. It’s worth considering this strategy without votes at 16 too. After all, the most common age group on Facebook is 25-34.

Spread the word

So, what about canvassing? You’re not likely to reach out to that many 16 year-olds with good old fashioned door knocking. Political parties would have to broaden their canvassing process to connect with the youth vote. Schools, colleges and vocational training centres would have to be added to the campaign trail.

Again, social media would be important. But as we saw in 2017, the main parties are already well aware of this. Both the Conservatives and Labour attempted to reach out to voters with adverts on Snapchat, as well as the more familiar platforms Twitter and Facebook.

There’s also the issue of policies. It would be up to politicians to convince the new 16-17 voters that they’re the best option. How? With more young voters, we would expect to see more youth-focussed policies. Issues like education, training and employment would become more prominent than ever before, with a whole new crop of school leavers given a say in how things are run.

Ctrl, Alt, Vote

Electronic voting has been adopted in several countries like Australia, India and Brazil. Whether the government would support this option is another question. But it would surely gain momentum with a lowered voting age.

Why? Everyone turning 16 will have had access to the internet from a young age. Like so-called ‘Generation Z’, they have grown up with digital as the norm. Everything they do and see is online or electronic in some way or another. While electronic voting was shown to have no significant impact on turnout in Estonia in 2007, ten years on it seems more likely to have a positive effect – and even more so further into the future.

Heading to the polls

So, let’s get down to the question on most people’s minds – how would Votes at 16 impact on actual election results? It’s hard to say in the long term. But the best way we can predict it is by looking at the current link between age and voting patterns. YouGov asked over 50,000 adults how they voted in the 2017 general election and here’s what they found for different age groups:

Age

Conservative voters

Labour voters

18-19

19%

66%

20-24

22%

62%

25-29

23%

63%

30-39

29%

55%

40-49

39%

44%

50-59

47%

37%

60-69

58%

27%

70+

69%

19%

Looking at these figures, it’s hard to see anything other than a swing to the so-called ‘left. Labour gained more votes than the Conservatives for all age groups below 50, with a massive majority in under 30s. This contrasts the domination of the Conservatives for those over 60. More precisely, YouGov has calculated the exact turning point at 47. This is the age when voters become statistically more likely to vote Conservative, based on 2017 results.

Democracy through technology

It’s not just electronic voting that makes technology an essential part of democracy. At Idox Elections, we provide a wide range of innovative electoral software that can enhance democratic processes across the board. From registration management and postal vote checking to online canvassing and election count services, we cover all bases. And with all of our services, our friendly support staff are always on hand to help, ensuring you get the best service. Be sure to get in touch for more information.