Support to lower the voting age to 16 is growing across Europe, and the UK is no exception. It’s looking more and more likely that young people will be allowed to vote, in time for the upcoming EU referendum. Better still, a bill in parliament proposes to overhaul of the way we teach young people about politics. By giving them the vote – and explaining how and why they should exercise it – we have a unique opportunity to re-engage young people with our political system.
A solution like this one is desperately needed: young people are notorious non-voters. While turnout levels are going down among all age groups, young adult turnout is undergoing an even more rapid decline. In fact, the gap in turnout between young and old in the UK is by far the largest of any European democracy.
To make things worse, recent changes in registration rules mean that young people can no longer be automatically registered to vote by their parents, universities or colleges. If they fail to register before November 20, as many as a million young voters could be left off the electoral register. This would be another massive blow to youth participation in politics.
So what’s the root of this problem, and how can we fix it?
Alienation, cynicism and disenchantment are often-cited explanations for the lack of interest in electoral politics among young people. Young people, so the argument goes, do not feel that politicians take an interest in them, rarely feel acknowledged as experts on topics that influence their lives and regard the contemporary political style as slow, formal, distant and uninspiring.
Lowering the minimum voting age is often seen as a “cure” to the political disengagement of young people. Proponents argue that, not only are 16 and 17-year-olds mature enough to vote, they also possess legal rights and duties that seem inconsistent with not having the right to vote. For example, 16 and 17-year-olds pay taxes, are allowed to marry and can join the army – so why aren’t they given the right to vote, and a real stake in democracy?
Well, for one thing, it’s naive to think that just by giving young people the right to vote, they will automatically engage with politics. There is a wealth of evidence that age and voter turnout are positively correlated: in other words, the older you are, the more likely you are to vote.
And lessons should be learned from the past: lowering of the voting age from 21 to 18 during the 1960s and 1970s caused turnout to decline significantly in Western democracies. Because turnout among 18 to 20-year-olds is usually lower than older people, the inclusion of this group is thought to have brought down the average. There is a real risk the same will happen if the minimum voting age lowers even further.
A chance for change
But with this risk comes a significant opportunity. Research shows that political interest – a strong determinant of voter turnout – develops until the mid-20s and is relatively stable afterwards. And this development can be boosted by an orchestrated effort to socialise young people into voters, instead of abstainers.
Consider this: 18-year-olds have usually flown the nest to attend college or university and taken on many of the responsibilities of adulthood; managing their own finances, paying rent and living independently.
By comparison, 16 and 17-year-olds are generally still in school and living with their parents, having been embedded in their community for a number of years. There are clear advantages to getting people of this age interested in politics, before they are distracted by other responsibilities.
But more emphasis needs to be placed on raising young people’s awareness of what is at stake and how the system works. Civic education classes have a large role to play in this. Recent research shows that civic education has a long-term impact on political engagement, which persists long after people have left school.
A greater awareness and understanding of democratic practices could well result in a more positive experience for first-time voters, which in turn would increase the probability that they continue to take to the polls in later life.
Fortunately, it seems this isn’t lost on some of those in politics today: the Representation of the People’s (Young Persons’ and Enfranchisement and Education) bill – which is currently making its way through parliament – proposes a coordinated effort not only to give young people the vote, but to make them aware of how the democratic system works, and what’s at stake in elections.
The lesson of our research is clear: education matters. With careful consideration, this bill could provide an historical opportunity to convert young people into life-long voters, by lowering the voting age and overhauling citizenship education at the same time. Let’s seize this chance to re-engage young people with politics while we can.