A quick reminder that we really ought to lower the voting age

Estimable political scientist Philip Cowley (he writes those big, excellent books about UK general elections) objects to lowering the voting age to 16 and sort of idly wonders if we ought to raise it to 21.

Steve Bowbrick
Jan 9 · 3 min read

This is, of course, ridiculous. It’s a craven defence of the status quo and an unimaginative repetition of a centuries-old prejudice against youth. There are at least five good reasons why the voting age should be lowered (I’m leaving out the obvious sixth one — that it might electorally benefit left-wing parties — because, it turns out, that’s not necessarily true).

  1. It will make the electorate more open to change, reform, novelty in general. Not much, just a bit. Probably just the right amount, in fact. Parties will work to appeal to the young, updating their programmes more often, trying to stay relevant and modern. Electoral politics will be slightly more dynamic, slightly more open to new ideas. And, better yet, we might find that some of the concerns of young people even make it into the party manifestos.
  2. Children will make better voters than their parents. Votes are just choices. Choices with material outcomes for sure, but still relatively simple choices. It’s not rocket surgery, granddad. The more I think about it the more disgusted I am that we grown-ups are so certain that young people can’t be trusted to make these choices. Especially as the evidence piles up that adults make their own democratic choices in such an arbitrary way, with such limited grasp of the facts, with so little readiness to listen to others or to test our ideas. And look at the outcomes! Could children possibly be worse at voting than stupid adults?
  3. It will provide an important counterweight for the old. The old already have a massive numerical advantage in any representative democracy. And while we don’t ask them to stop voting 18 years before they die, they are going to retain this advantage. And, as populations everywhere age, that advantage can only grow — and grow and grow and grow. The old are taking over our democracies. They must be stopped.
  4. It will automatically produce greater engagement in the democratic process. If you can vote while you’re still at school — if voting can be integrated in a clever way with citizenship education (and other appropriate classes, like politics, history, English, geography, woodwork… all of them, really) and provided it’s not allowed to become just another boring subject— it will seem more relevant, interesting, important. Not to everyone, obviously — plenty of kids will run a mile — but to enough of them for it to make a measurable difference to electoral outcomes. Incidentally, integrating voting with education — putting the polling station on school grounds, making voting an aspect of the curriculum — will help to mitigate one fairly reasonable objection to allowing children to vote; that adults (and other villains) might try to bully or harass young voters or to steal their votes.
  5. It’s the logical next step in the expansion of the franchise. This is the big one, really. Remember, every single expansion, across all of history, has been a massive fight between the established order and the new. In Rome, the natural order insisted that Patricians could vote but not Plebeians (or slaves, or women, even Patrician women). Aristocrats objected to allowing grubby landowners to vote. Landowners had a lot of very sound reasons for not allowing their semi-literate tenants to vote. White people invented hideous ways to stop black people from voting, even after they had the right to do so. Men, of course, literally imprisoned and tortured women who wanted to vote. And, looking back, every one of these objections is stupid or venal or both.

People who object to allowing young people to vote say: they’re not mature enough; they don’t think long-term; they can’t evaluate complex arguments; they’re too easily influenced. They even say that today’s young people are less suited to vote than they used to be, when they had to go out to work at 15. But what they mean, of course, is that they’ll probably vote for the wrong party.

David Runciman, he of the Cambridge University political podcast and the big book about democracy, half seriously says we ought to lower the voting age to six (the age by which most children can read). I like his style but I prefer 11, the age at which most children start secondary education and regular classes in civics/citizenship.

Steve Bowbrick

I’m Chair of the amazing Fair Field Academy Trust, a social media editor in radio and a volunteer at Watford Refugees.

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