Voting age: Should 16-year-olds be allowed to vote in the UK? Why?

should 16 year olds be allowed to vote

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Is lowering the voting age a solution for youth disengagement? Should 16-year-olds be allowed to vote? Join the academic debate on the pros and cons of changing the minimum voting age in Britain

This debate is based on the lecture: "Electoral studies in the UK" (15 November 2016) by Dr. Thomas Loughran. This is the 7th lecture of the course: POLI20901: How to Conduct Political Research at the University of Manchester.


Dr. Thomas Loughran completed his PhD at the Institute for Social Science at the University of Manchester. His doctoral thesis "A Values Based Electorate?" explains how the electoral contexts influence the relationship between political values and voting in West European Democracies. Dr Thomas Loughran also holds a Masters in Social Change and has previously worked in research projects such as the British Election Study and the Social Complexity of Immigration and Diversity project. His areas of expertise include Electoral Studies, Comparative Politics, Values and Attitudes and Innovative Approaches to Modelling Political Behavior.

Should 16-year-olds be allowed to vote in the UK?

The increasing alienation of young people from formal electoral politics is often cited as a major concern by academics, politicians and commentators. As each subsequent cohort of young people becomes less likely to vote and less likely to become party members, many point to the danger of a looming crisis of democracy. Lowering the voting age to 16 is often cited as one potential solution to the problem of youth disengagement. It has already been enacted for the Scottish Referendum vote in 2014 and, after the Brexit vote in the UK, there appears to be a growing debate regarding whether 16 should become the new minimum voting age. 

In the UK there seems to be an age divide in terms of party preferences. According to a YouGov analysis class is no longer a good predictor for voting behaviour, but it seems that preferences are correlated with voters age. The older the people are the more likely they are to vote for the Conservative Party. Conversely, the younger the age interval studied, the higher the proportion of Labour voters. This means that if the voting age was lowered, the chances for the Labour party to win elections would increase.

In addition to this purely electoral reason, there are other normative and empirical arguments both for and against this measure. These are some of the most common ones:

In favour of lowering voting age to 16

  • Habit. Political Scientists have shown that voting is a habit that is generally formed in early adulthood. If an individual votes in 3 straight elections they are highly likely to vote in every election for the rest of their lives. However, if an individual does not vote in their teens and early 20s they are highly likely to never gain the voting habit. Lowering the voting age to 16 therefore increases the number of elections in which young people can gain the habit of voting.
  • Household effects. It has been shown that people are more likely to vote if they live with other people who vote.  Most 16-year-olds live at home with parents and it is likely those parents are voters.  At 18, a lot of young people’s first elections are after they have moved away from home and are living with other young people who are not regular voters and so they do not receive the social influence to vote.
  • The age of adulthood. Many other legal age limits begin at 16, not 18. If young people are seen as legally of age to participate in other activities, then it is natural justice that they should be able to take part in the democratic process that oversees those activities.  For example, 16 year olds can get married, join the army, get a full-time job, apply for a passport, leave home without parental consent and consent to their own medical treatment. Yet they cannot cast a vote that could potentially have some influence over these things.

Against voting at 16

  • Effect on Turnout. There is little evidence that decreasing the voting age would lead to an increase in turnout or that 16-18 year olds would be particularly likely to turnout to vote. If anything the expectation would be that overall turnout would decline further because 16-18 year olds would have a drag effect. 18-24 year olds have consistently recorded the lowest turnout rates of any age cohort by a large margin. For example in the 2015 UK General Election 18-24 year olds had a 43% turnout rate which was 10% lower than 25-34 year olds and nearly 25% lower than the national turnout rate of 66.1%.  It is argued that reducing the voting age to 16 would simply increase this age disparity by turnout and therefore run the risk of adding to the crisis of democratic legitimacy rather than alleviating it.
  • Political Knowledge. While there are a number of politically interested, knowledgeable and engaged young people, most studies have shown that in general young people have a very low interest and knowledge of politics.  As a result there is a concern regarding whether most 16 year olds would have the necessary knowledge, or willingness to acquire the necessary knowledge, in order to cast a meaningful vote.
  • The age of adulthood.  There are many activities that 16-18 year olds cannot participate in and it is therefore questionable whether they can be really classified as full adults. For example, 16 year olds in Britain cannot legally drive, smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol or obtain a mortgage. In addition, until the age of 18 there remain some activities which officially require individuals to receive parental consent. It has also been argued that at 16 many individuals may still be under disproportionate direct influence from their parents and therefore it may not be possible guarantee that they would be making an independent choice when voting.

Recommended readings:

  • Bergh, Johannes (2013) "Does voting rights affect the political maturity of 16- and 17-year-olds? Findings from the 2011 Norwegian voting-age trial" Electoral Studies, Volume 32(1): pages 90–100 (article)
  • Cowley, Philip and David Denver (2004) "Votes at 16? The case against," Representation, 41(1): 57-62 (article)
  • Folkes, Alex (2004) "The case for votes at 16," Representation, 41(1): 52-56 (article)

Emerging questions: Do you think the voting age in the UK should be lowered to 16? Are 16-year-olds ready to engage in politics? Should different voting ages be set for different types of elections or referendums? Which, if any, of the above arguments do you find more compelling from an empirical and normative perspective? What would be better for democracy: lowering or increasing voting age? What methodology would be the most helpful in researching voting age?

Watch these debates on lowering voting age to 16 in the UK:


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Voting age: Should 16-year-olds be allowed to vote in the UK? Why?

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