Voting age – an intergenerational issue

Angus Hanton proposes that the voting age should be reviewed to ensure that the younger generation is properly represented

There are some democratic systems in which there is an upper age limit on voting. For example, in the Vatican Cardinals over 80 years old are not allowed to cast a vote in the election of a new Pope. This prompts the question of what is the rationale for either upper age or lower voting ages.

In both cases the argument must be that age may be a primitive but very measurable indicator of whether a person is able to exercise rational choice, but such limitations also disenfranchise citizens. The recent controversy in the UK over whether prisoners should be allowed to vote highlights the tension between citizenship and enfranchisement.

Many people believe that the voting age, which averages 18 worldwide, should now be lowered to 16, while some others go further and think there should be no voting age limitation at all.

Why do voting ages vary around the world?

The history of voting ages has been of progressive reductions: in the UK the general consensus was 21 for a long time, but in the 1970s widespread reform led to a reduction to 18. However there is still considerable variation and some countries have lowered the voting age to 16 (Cuba, Brazil, Jersey, Isle of Man, Guernsey and Austria for most elections). Some others have stuck with higher ages, such as Singapore (21), Oman (21), and Japan (20).

Parliamentarians often hold strong views on what is the right age to allow people to vote, and a 2005 vote in the British House of Commons was very close, with a small majority voting against lowering the UK mainland voting age to 16.

Alternatives to a rigid voting age

The German FRFG (Foundation for the Rights of Future Generations) has argued that there should be no minimum age for voting. One way to handle this is for parents to vote on behalf of minors until the children are old enough to exercise this democratic right themselves, whilst another approach is to allow children and teenagers to register for voting whenever they think they are ready to vote.

People who want the voting age lowered often ask about apparent inconsistencies – is it right that someone who is 16 can get married but still can’t vote?

One way that has been suggested for democratically representing younger people is for mothers to have two votes – this would only apply for those with children under the voting age. It is not clear why it should be mothers rather than fathers, though presumably maternity is less often disputed than paternity and mothers more often live with their children, so they may be better placed to represent younger people’s interests and views in exercising their voting “rights”.

Why does the voting age matter to the younger generation?

Whilst a younger voting age (or indeed no specified voting age) may advance the interests of the younger generation through the ballot box, there are important second-order effects too: allowing younger citizens to vote recognises their importance and sends them a signal that their interests count.

It may also encourage early political engagement – many of those who have advocated a lowering of the voting age, such as Gordon Brown, have linked this to effective education on citizenship and democracy in schools.

Voter disillusionment, especially amongst the young

Getting younger people onto the electoral role may have less effect on UK policies than imagined, because younger people have been much less inclined actually to exercise their vote than older voters. Perhaps the younger generation are less motivated to campaign for change through the ballot box, and prefer to use other routes to bring about change.

Recently, high-profile campaigns organised by young groups have included demonstrations and peaceful direct action through UK Uncut, which have attracted wide media coverage; they have also used the Internet and social media to campaign effectively against the Forestry Commission sell-off proposals.

However, the voting age issue will continue to be very important, not just because of the voters who may be added to the electoral roll but because of what it says about society’s attitude towards the rights of younger people.