IEA debate: Should the voting age be lowered to 16?
Taxation without representation
Perhaps the strongest argument for lowering the voting age to 16 rests on the principle of “no taxation without representation”. If you are in employment at the age of 16, you are added to PAYE and will be liable for Income Tax and National Insurance (NI) on earnings above the thresholds – a clear example of taxation without any corresponding representation.
Critics will undoubtedly point out that Income Tax and NI are not the only taxes that people pay and that under-16s will almost certainly have at least paid VAT before this point. While this is true, if anything, it makes the case for an even lower voting age or an age-based consumption tax exemption. Indeed, in the one area where there is such a tax exemption – VAT on children’s clothes – it is removed as soon as the clothes are deemed to be designed for anyone over the age of fourteen.
However, putting that argument aside, Income Tax may not be the only tax paid by sixteen-year olds but it is the final one that puts them on a par with their elders who do have the vote. As soon as they are liable for Income Tax and National Insurance, their tax affairs are effectively no different to an 18-year-old or even a 64-year-old.
It is also likely to be the first non-hidden tax they pay. This may sound like a niche point but the injustice of seeing earned money being removed from your pay packet without any opportunity to influence either the rate at which it is set or on what it is spent is tough to swallow.
Competency to vote?
One of the most frequent arguments against 16-year-olds being given the vote is that they may not have the education, information, or other competencies in order do so responsibly. However, these are very difficult criteria to measure or prove.
It could, for example, be argued that generally lower turnout among younger people is down to them having a better understanding or appreciation of rational ignorance and the paradox of voting than their elder peers.
Similarly, how can we judge whether a vote is being used “responsibly”? Even if every 16-year-old, if allowed to vote, spoiled their ballot or cast it for the Monster Raving Loony Party, would that satisfactorily prove they lack the required competencies? Again, it could be argued that they are expressing frustration at the way British democracy works or the offer of the major parties in an entirely rational way.
It is also a dangerous slippery slope to suggest that a certain level of intelligence or education is required to permit voting, let alone asking voters of any age to justify their rationale for voting (or not) in the way that they did.
In any case, it is obvious that at least some 16-year-olds are engaged and informed to a higher level than many over-18s and so it is difficult to justify using competency as a criterion to vote in this way.
Finally, there is an element of “chicken-and-egg” here. Arguably, a lack of political knowledge among under-18s is entirely rational as they currently have no use for such knowledge. If 16- and 17-year-olds are given the vote, you would expect to see an increase in awareness accompanying that. Generally, knowledge of political affairs increases throughout your lifetime. Why not start that process earlier in life?
Longer term impacts
A brief but important point to make is that enfranchisement is not only relevant on polling day. With the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act in place, someone aged a day under 18 on polling day could find themselves aged 23 before casting their first vote in a general election. By that point they are likely to have come in to contact with some or all of student loans, welfare, employment legislation, income tax, minimum wages, lifestyle restrictions and dozens of other government interventions in their lives.
Allowing people an earlier opportunity to change the way they are governed should certainly be considered. This argument is of course even stronger in longer term one-off votes such as Brexit and Scottish Independence.
No discussion of voting age would be complete without pointing out that 16-year-olds can have sex, buy lottery tickets, and (in certain circumstances) join the army, get married and drink alcohol. This point has been covered ad nauseum elsewhere, so I won’t labour it here. Suffice to say, the possibility of conceiving a child, winning millions, getting married, or dying in service are arguably far more significant (and in some cases more likely) than the possibility of changing your MP.
Ultimately, competency is an incredibly difficult criteria to objectively measure or implement. Alongside this, the arguments from the longer-term impacts of disenfranchisement and particularly from providing representation for those paying tax, make the case that the franchise should be as large as is reasonably possible. It will always be somewhat arbitrary but setting the age limit at the point at which your labour is taxed and your other rights as an adult start to be introduced seems to be the most sensible.
However, what is really required in this debate is consistency. If the voting age is to be reduced to 16, we should consider reducing the age for other rights such as drinking, smoking, viewing pornography and buying property. If it stays at 18, increasing the age at which income tax is introduced and other rights are permitted should go hand in hand.
NO – says Julian Jessop, Economics Fellow, Institute of Economic Affairs.
Calls for votes at 16 in all UK elections are widely seen as trendy and progressive. It is therefore no surprise that the usual suspects have been quick to jump on the bandwagon. But their arguments are seriously flawed. Extending the franchise without proper debate and preparation would actually be deeply undemocratic
The reality is that most 16 and 17-year-olds are still children living at home and going to school. There is enough pressure on them already. Just imagine the online barrage of political advertising that they would face. Their votes are also more likely to be susceptible to influence by their parents.
There is plenty of misinformation about what children can and cannot already legally do. Advocates of lowering the voting age often say that 16 is the age at which you can marry or join the army. But at this age you would still require the consent of your parents or guardians (at least in England), and would not be eligible to serve in combat roles.
At 16, the law does allow you to leave home or school, work up to 40 hours per week, become a company director, and have consensual sex with someone who is also at least 16. However, these are still not actions that society would usually encourage at such a young age. And in England, a young person must be in some form of part-time education or training until they’re 18.
Claims about the obligation to pay taxes can be misleading too. It is correct that 16 is the threshold for paying National Insurance Contributions (NICs), if you earn enough, and for receiving some state benefits. It is also the age at which you start to qualify for the National Minimum Wage. But, in general, your liability for taxes depends on your income and expenditure, not your age.
It is surely more significant that a large number of other rights and obligations only kick in at 18. For example, you have to wait until 18 to take out a mortgage, credit card or personal loan, serve on a jury, become a police officer, fight in the armed forces, get married without permission, see certain films, buy alcohol, tobacco, fireworks or a gun, or gamble.
Of course, there is no reason why all age thresholds have to be the same. There might be a lower starting point for activities which are less likely to harm the individual, or others. I’ve heard people argue that the voting age should be lowered to 16, while simultaneously arguing that the ages for buying alcohol and tobacco should be kept at 18 (or even raised), because drinking and smoking are dangerous activities. But if you can’t trust a child to make a relatively simple health choice on their own behalf, why allow them to decide the future of the entire country?
Nor do I think the views of young teens are being “suppressed”. There are many other ways to engage effectively in politics, without being able to vote. Adults do think of what is best for others and can therefore still be influenced by what young people have to say. For example, would anyone deny that Greta Thunberg’s voice is being heard? (I actually sympathise with the argument that her campaign illustrates why children should not be allowed to vote, but that’s for another day…)
In any event, it would surely be premature to change the law to allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in the next general election, which could be held as soon as December. What time would this give them to come up to speed? Should we really make such a major change to the voting rules without proper debate?
It would only make sense to lower the voting age once everyone involved has had more opportunity to prepare. This means more investment in citizenship education and ensuring that young people hear a wide range of views. For example, I’d like to see a module on the track record of socialism in other countries.
Similar arguments apply to any repeat of the 2016 EU referendum. Repeating this would already be controversial enough without changing the rules on voter eligibility at same time. What’s more, many MPs are claiming that they still can’t make an informed choice on Brexit after more than three years of parliamentary debate. Why do they think 16-year-old children would be in any better position?
In summary, it’s surely not unreasonable to argue that people below a certain age are much less likely to be ready to vote. Classroom teaching and exposure to social media are no substitute for experience of the real world. By all means, let’s do more groundwork for a lower voting age in future. For now, though, the threshold for UK elections and referendums should remain at 18.