Earlier today I retweeted a tweet suggesting that we lower the voting age from 18 to 16. It was just a ‘casual’ retweet, on the spur of the moment, but when the excellent Owen Blacker (@owenblacker on twitter) challenged me to blog about it, I started thinking more about the subject… and the more I thought about it, the clearer I became that I’m definitely in favour of lowering the voting age, and possibly even beyond 16.
There are a number of reasons for this, some of which have really come to the fore over recent weeks and months. Some are very direct and practical, others much more philosophical. Some are based on what’s happening right now – others on aspirations for the future. Some are because I think the process of voting will benefit the kids, some will benefit the whole of society. Some are based on my own experience as a kid, others on my observations and work with children and young people over the years – and I should say, just to make it clear, I’m 47 years old, and have a 6 year old daughter!
Looking first at the kids: one of the main accusations made about kids is that they’re irresponsible. Putting them into a situation where they have the chance to vote could help shift that – if they understand that how they vote could actually change things, they might think more about it. I’ve worked a little in ‘democratic schools’, where the kids get to vote on all aspects of school policy, and though they sometimes put forward fairly silly policies in general they should immense capacity for taking responsibility. The more responsibility you give them, the better they are at respecting that responsibility.
The second, related factor, is that habits formed at that age can last a lifetime. Just as I (and many people I know) still listen to the music that was around in their youth (I’m still a huge fan of the Clash, the Cure, Elvis Costello, the Specials etc), the political habits we form as youths have a huge influence the rest of our lives. The habit formed by most is one of apathy – and the fact that as a 16 year old you know you have no influence supports that apathy. Bring in the vote for 16 year olds and you have a chance – not necessarily a big chance, but a chance – that you will find more politically engaged adults emerging. That, for me, would be a very good thing. At the moment, our voter turnout is generally abysmal and our engagement with the issues often superficial at best. That isn’t good for anyone!
The next issue is one that has come to the fore over the last few days: education policy. If 16-18 year olds had more of an influence over education policy, I don’t think it would be quite as easy for policies like Michael Gove’s horrendous suggestion of bringing back O levels to come about. As this policy highlights, it is all too easy for politicians to base their judgment and their policies on their own experience – and that experience is often so far from the real experience of real children in schools as to be useless at best, highly damaging at worst. Giving children at least some say could help improve things in that way. If more voters are closer to the ‘coalface’ of education, then politicians will have to pay a little bit more attention to the reality rather than the ideological dogma and their half-remembered childhoods.
In a somewhat similar way, if we had more young people voting – and if politicians had to pay more than lip-service to the youth – we might have more chance of a sensible set of digital policies. As I’ve blogged before, government digital policy is generally dire – partly because they’re almost completely out of touch with the reality of the internet. Young people are much more likely to understand, and to ‘get it’. They’d be much less likely to push absurdities like the snoopers charter, or to allow hideous abuses like the extradition of Richard O’Dwyer (which is being fought against by many – see here, for example). That, from someone who works in the digital field, would be wonderful.
There are other, more general reasons that I would support the lowering of the voting age – and why I think the arguments against lowering the voting age have less weight than they might. The first is about idealism: some suggest that the young are too idealistic, that they don’t understand the realities of the world, so they shouldn’t be allowed to vote. Frankly, I think that is a reason TO allow them to vote, not a reason to oppose it. We need more idealism, more radicalism, more willingness to challenge the status quo, not less. Have we ‘oldsters’ done such a good job after all? The Dalai Lama, who I had the privilege to hear lecture last week (see my blog here) made one of the key messages of his talk an emphasis on youth…. and he was right!
The next is a simple one: anything that increases awareness of democracy, of the responsibilities of the democratic process, must be, in general, a good thing. Democracies are far from faultless, but they’re the best we’ve got, and they must work at their best with more engagement and more understanding. Letting 16 year olds vote would surely help that.
Finally, what’s the downside? What would be wrong with letting 16 year-olds vote? Are they so bad? Maybe they do spend a lot of time agonising about their boyfriends, girlfriends or lack of either, maybe they do care a lot about music, and celebs – but so do huge numbers of grown-ups. What’s more, the 16 year-olds who will bother to vote are likely to be the more interested, intelligent and engaged 16 year-olds, and anyone who has worked with kids knows that some of them are wonderful, inspiring and interesting – and would vote every bit as responsibly and appropriately as any adults – and a good deal better than most.