Should 16 year olds be allowed to vote?

I pose this question because Labour has announced they will be going into the next election promising exactly this, no doubt under the assumption that young people like myself are inclined to lean towards the Left (not that they represent any such notion).

I suspect, even if you are around 16, that your answer to this question is a resounding no. I wouldn’t trust my 16 year old brother to lay the dinner-table. Is allowing him a say in who governs our country really a good idea?

The argument against the notion is clear enough. At 16 or 17 years old an individual is believed to be too irresponsible to influence decisions that affect the entire population. Furthermore, it is fair to say that most have no real interest or knowledge in politics at this age, so their involvement would run the risk of skewing elections to reflect a somehow ill-informed result. Many would see this extension of the franchise as a discredit to the serious world of politics. One would expect parties to ‘dumb-down’ their campaigns (it probably wouldn’t hurt), or even try and invade the teenage-orientated media scene. Imagine if the likes of One Direction decided to publicise their support for a certain party – one would fear a significant fraction of their 16 and 17 year old fan-base mimicking the alliance baselessly. A worse-case scenario yet would be attempts to vote someone like One Direction, or the Monster Raving Loony Party, into government for the “lols”. The case against is a strong one. Yet I find myself somehow disagreeing.

Are 16 year olds really as irresponsible as we make out? They can already in this country have sex, and marry with parental consent. You might argue that these are personal responsibilities, and that voting is different because it affects the population. Well then, what about the fact they can join the army with parental consent at 16? Surely defending our country is a responsibility that affects us all? Today there are youths who are willing to die for our country but they are not allowed a say in how it is governed. There are also 16 and 17 year olds who have left school and started earning enough to pay taxes – but they are not allowed a say in how their contributions are spent.

Then there comes the generalised objection that they have no real interest in politics anyway and would not be knowledgeable enough to make an informed vote. Thinking back to 16 year old me and my peers (or even me now), I don’t think this is too unfair. But I would argue that, seeing as only 65% of registered voters bothered in 2010, there are plenty of adults who can be summarised, and even would describe themselves, as the same. And they are allowed to vote. In an ideal democracy only those who were knowledgeable about politics would vote – true – and under ideal conditions this would be everyone. However, this is not the case, and it never will be, so to exclude 16 and 17 year olds on this basis is an empty argument. Education nowadays is gradually increasing political awareness, but acceptingly not enough is being done. 16 and 17 year olds should be granted the right to vote, taught why they should want to, and also the skills needed to process the information that will influence their decisions. Then they wouldn’t grow up into adults who unconditionally, for a lifetime, give their vote to the same party their parents did with no further justification.

While I have voiced my support for Labour’s plans to extend the franchise, I must condemn the Shadow Lord Chancellor’s suggestion (a pretty cool title) that perhaps voting should be made compulsory for teenagers entering the electorate for the first time. After some research, I was shocked to learn that many countries – including Australia, Argentina and Brazil – already have a nationwide compulsory voting system. This seems to me to fundamentally violate freedom of speech, as an obligation to voice an opinion should be criticised for being as repressive as an obligation to stay silent. If you make it compulsory for teenagers, or anyone, to vote then you are prompting many to vote randomly, which completely defeats the principle of democracy.

Should 16 year olds be allowed to vote? Against my initial reaction, I say yes. And to be honest, when the voting options are as bleak as ours are at the moment, I think the age of the people ticking the boxes is the least of our worries. But what do you think?


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