As the dust settles on the independence referendum, one of the few points around which which a consensus appears to have formed is the wisdom of allowing 16- and 17-year olds to vote.
When the Scottish Parliament met yesterday for the first time since the referendum, parties offered broad encouragement to lowering the voting age to sixteen for future votes. Similarly, when Ed Miliband addressed the Labour Party Conference this week he declared his support for extending the franchise (he didn’t forget that bit of his speech so it must have been important).
I think it is absolutely imperative that the voting age is lowered. However I want to argue this from a slightly unorthodox perspective.
I’ll begin by recapping the contribution of newly-enfranchised voters to the referendum.
I’ll then run through the standard arguments for lowering the voting age.
After that I want to change tack and ask a more fundamental question: why should anyone be excluded from the franchise?
I hope to demonstrate how difficult it is to justify any age restriction on voting, if one takes democratic theory seriously.
New voters and the indyref
Anyone who left the house in the last six weeks of the referendum campaign, or who had access to Twitter or Facebook during that period, will have been struck by the deep and widespread engagement of 16- and 17-year olds with the matters at hand. New voters were certainly responsible for some of my abiding memories of the referendum.
For example, I went along to a Radical Independence gathering in George Square about a week before the vote, during which a “flashmob ceilidh” broke out. The most enthusiastic participants were a group of young lassies who knew every step by heart. I can only assume they’d been doing the Gay Gordons et al at school for social dancing. I remember hating social dancing when I was younger, but then when we did it we didn’t realise it was an instrument of cultural liberation.
I also remember being on a train one afternoon when it filled up suddenly with school pupils on their way home. I struggled to spot a single one who wasn’t sporting a Yes badge. The carriage was noisy, as it always is when you end up on the school train, but the chat was a bit different from the usual: this time they were all talking about the referendum. I can say without fear of contradiction that the level of knowledge and understanding was way beyond what most of my thirty-something peers could have exhibited.
The swell of these new voices reached something of a crescendo with the BBC’s Big Big Debate in Glasgow, where representatives of both campaigns took questions from a 7000-strong audience of school pupils.
It was a genuine delight to track the progress of the debate on Twitter – some of the funniest lines of the entire campaign were contributed by the new voters in the room. It was even more impressive to watch the highlights on television that evening, when the questions from the floor turned out to be of the highest standard. George Galloway certainly won’t forget it in a hurry.
None of this surprised me in the slightest. Back in 2005 I had the pleasure and privilege of assisting a colleague from the University of Glasgow, where I was then based, with a series of workshops with senior school pupils. This was shortly before the General Election at which Blair won his third term in office. The various party manifestos were doing the rounds at the time, inspiring very few voters.
My colleague began each session by noting that the pupils were too young to vote at this election, but would no doubt be aware of the policy terrain on which the election was being fought.
He then asked all of the pupils to dismiss this stuff from their minds entirely.
Instead, he asked them to think about what they saw as the main priorities facing them. If they could design their own manifesto, what would be in it?
The results were fascinating. To my enduring regret I could never place my hands on a copy of their manifestos but I remember the thrust of them.
Without exception, every group of pupils was deeply liberal on social issues. They all committed themselves to eradicating homophobia, sexism, racism and other forms of discrimination, and they were concerned about bullying and other forms of psychological violence.
They were, interestingly, much less liberal on welfare issues, and frequently made assertions about (for example) benefit fraud, which they could not back up with any evidence. Much like many politicians and adult voters, one may suggest. This strand of thought co-existed with a strong sense that unemployment was an evil to be eradicated.
Most interestingly of all, they were tapping into a vast reservoir of ideas for policies that were entirely unlike the sorts of things you see in party manifestos. Ideas about getting young people engaged with music and other art forms, and keeping them out of gangs, for example. Brilliant, original ideas about the structure and purpose of their own education. A deep and well-researched commitment to environmental sustainability. And, interesting in its historical context, a passionate rejection of militarism and a commitment to building understanding between nations.
It blew me away to be quite honest, and was in a different league to what i would have been capable of at the same age. Or even at my current age, come to think of it.
The hardest part of every workshop was persuading the pupils that they didn’t have to design their manifesto as a counterpart to the real life ones – that they didn’t have to impress us by replicating what adult politicians talk about. Once they trusted us and let go of their learned preconceptions, the energy in the room was exhilarating. Much like being part of the Yes movement, in fact.
Reliable figures are, sadly, unavailable at this point for voting behaviour in the indyref. There are only two sources in the public domain at this point. The first is Lord Ashcroft’s poll, which attracted much attention in the immediate aftermath of the vote (available here). The second is a recent YouGov poll (available here).
These have been presented by people who should know better (such as me, in my last post) as breakdowns of the voting cohort, but they’re just the equivalent of opinion polls. Ashcroft’s sample consists of 2000 people, while YouGov spoke to 3183. The figures do not derive from actual analysis of ballot box returns. Tread carefully.
Inasmuch as they are of interest, then, the Ashcroft poll claimed a remarkable 71% of 16-17 year olds had voted Yes, while just 48% of the 18-24 age group followed suit.
Ashcroft’s 16-17 sample consisted of just 14 voters, however, so the overwhelming majority in this age category is probably misleading. It means ten out of the fourteen people he spoke to voted Yes. It could easily have been a fluke.
Indeed, his combined 16-24 age group was split 51:49 in favour of Yes. As such, one might conclude that the 71% figure was an outlier, balanced out by the larger and more representative cohort of slightly older voters. Maybe.
Meanwhile, YouGov’s combined 16-24 cohort returned a 51:49 verdict in favour of No. It did not separate out the new voters, presumably on the basis that the sample would have been too small to be meaningful.
I would caution against reading too much into any of this, because we don’t know what the turnout was among 16-17 year olds, or really how they voted. All that can be inferred from the figures above is that the combined “young-ish” cohort of under-25s were split pretty much down the middle. If these polls are representative of the electorate at large it suggests that new voters were just as conflicted as the rest of us, and didn’t stratify in one direction or another.
One might deem this an indication that our 16- and 17-year olds voted responsibly and demonstrated their fit with the rest of the electorate. Perhaps this isn’t the excitingly radical message some of us hoped we were receiving, but there’s no point kidding ourselves on at this stage.
Familiar arguments for lowering the voting age
The case for extending the franchise to sixteen year-olds is familiar to many; it’s a popular topic for discursive essays in Higher English classes, for example. The arguments are strong and easily understood.
We might call the most familiar points ‘arguments from analogy’, or the correction of anomalies.
The key argument made from this angle, funnily enough, is actually factually wrong. It’s often proclaimed that you can die for your country aged sixteen so you should be able to vote for the government that sends you off to your fate. In fact, soldiers are not allowed to participate in frontline service until they are eighteen, so this analogy doesn’t work.
Similarly, it’s often asserted that you should be able to vote at sixteen since you can get married at that age. However, if one party is under eighteen years old then parental permission is required for a marriage. If this analogy is the basis for lowering the voting age then sixteen year-olds would have to ask their mum before trotting off to the polling station.
October 5th edit: I am grateful to Steve for pointing out in the comments that the point above is not actually true in Scotland (although it holds in the rest of the UK). I hope this doesn’t undermine the thrust of my argument. I would love to pretend that this was a deliberate mistake, or clumsy drafting, but it was a schoolboy error pure and simple…
However, a much more decisive anomaly is the fact that sixteen year-olds can leave school, pay income tax and National Insurance, and are subject to the full weight of the criminal law, all without being able to vote.
You might not be liable to die for your country, or be able to get married without your dad’s say-so, but at sixteen you are contributing to the funds in the Exchequer that our elected representatives divvy up, and subject to punishment by laws shaped by Parliament. Surely you should have a say in the composition of our elected chamber?
The taxation argument was most famously phrased in the context of the American Revolution, as “no taxation without representation”. In the present context, it is argued that taxation should not be levied on any citizen (or non-citizen) who does not have a say in how it is spent.
We might summarise these arguments from analogy as being about fair representation.
A different argument in favour of lowering the voting age is based on the idea that voting is an educative experience. By including sixteen and seventeen year-olds in the franchise, this theory holds, they will be motivated to find out about politics. They will also feel that they have been accorded esteem as citizens by the rest of the community and be more inclined to behave in a citizenly fashion thereafter. This argument is premised on the idea that extending the franchise leads to the moral improvement of new voters, in this case younger people.
The final standard argument for extending the franchise is based on the idea of dispersed intelligence. A development of the political theory of Hayek, this argument holds that useful knowledge is spread out across a society rather than being focused in a particular group. Therefore, the more people who are asked for their political views, the better the answers will be. If we exclude sixteen and seventeen year-olds from the electorate, we miss the perspective they can bring to issues that interest and affect them. As such, this argument is about improving the quality of political decisions.
I’d say that these arguments are all more than sufficient to justify giving sixteen and seventeen year-olds the vote. The arguments about fair representation undercut any objections that the voters are too young to understand what they’re voting about – in effect, it doesn’t matter if they’re well-informed, because either way they have the right to contribute to decisions based on their money and legal liability.
Meanwhile the arguments about moral improvement, which usually strike people as patronising, are surely borne out at least partly by the explosion of interest in politics among young people occasioned by their involvement in the referendum. It certainly didn’t do anyone any harm.
Finally, the arguments about improving political decisions by involving all sections of the community seem persuasive to me, not least in light of my experience with the school workshops described above. And inasmuch as we can read anything into the opinion polls produced by Ashcroft and YouGov, the very least we can say is that young voters did not seem to exercise their votes in a manner out of keeping with the rest of the electorate. They seem pretty sensible.
But there’s another argument that I want to explore in the next section that makes it difficult to exclude anyone from the electorate.
Democracy as moral equality
To construct this argument I want to abstract at first from the concrete issue of votes for sixteen and seventeen year-olds in Scotland. I want to talk about what democracy means more fundamentally.
The great democratising currents in human history have not usually framed their demands in terms of the moral improvement of non-voters, or the improvement of electoral decision-making. They have sometimes flagged up legal anomalies, not least No Taxation Without Representation, but let’s be honest; it’s hardly the most exhilarating battle-cry.
When one thinks about the suffragettes in Britain, or the ANC in South Africa, or the Leipzig Monday Demonstrations in East Germany, or any of the myriad other democratic struggles that have inspired change across the globe, one thinks of something else. Demanding the vote isn’t fundamentally about any of the points above. It’s about what having the vote, or not having the vote, says about a person.
If we grant someone the vote, we are saying that they are of moral worth in our society. We are confirming their equality with other people.
If we deny someone the vote, we indicate that they are not part of our community.
The justification for denying the vote to prisoners, while not persuasive to me, does at least stem from this idea. The rationale given is that you have betrayed your community by breaking the law, and as such you have forfeited your entitlement to that symbol of communitarian belonging, your vote in elections.
But let us consider the implications of this democratic idea more fully.
On the basis that possessing the vote reflects one’s membership of a political community, I challenge the reader to justify any restrictions on the franchise.
How would you justify any age limit on voting?
If we base our reasoning on the other arguments we’ve considered, this isn’t impossible. For example, newborn babies don’t pay tax, aren’t subject to the full weight of the criminal law and can’t even attend school let alone leave. Similarly, it is probably a bit early to worry about the politically educative consequences of voting when they’re still in nappies, and they can’t really improve political decision-making when they can’t talk.
But if the vote symbolises one’s membership of a political community – if it conveys our conviction that this person matters just as much as everyone else – then it’s fiendishly difficult to argue that even (or perhaps especially) newborn babies should not be entitled to vote.
Now clearly, babies can’t vote because they are entirely dependent on their carers. I’m not suggesting that they actually would vote. But I don’t think it follows that they should not then be entitled to vote, even if it’s just a theoretical conceit.
If we accept the above for the newly born, then we can extend this reasoning to older children. The exclusion of, say, eight, nine, ten-year olds from the franchise seems difficult to explain. Don’t we value ten year-olds as members of our community? Don’t we want to convey our moral esteem upon them? Of course we do.
And if the way we confer moral significance on fellow-members of our political community is by granting them the vote, why do we leave ten year-olds out of the electorate?
I moonlight occasionally as a political theory tutor and this is my favourite provocation to my students. Your homework, class, is to convince me that the vote should ever be restricted on age grounds.
It seems likely that sixteen and (young) seventeen year-olds who had the opportunity to vote in the independence referendum will fall out of the electorate again in time for the 2015 General Election. As if Westminster politics didn’t already seem weird enough to younger citizens.
It seems plausible, however, that the franchise will be formally extended to sixteen year-olds in the UK fairly soon, and at the earliest opportunity in Scotland.
As I have argued, arguments can be constructed in favour of this narrow aim from three broad perspectives:
1) the correction of an anomaly, where people can be taxed and jailed without being able to influence the formation of laws on tax and law and order;
2) the moral improvement of non-voters, where people can be motivated to learn about politics and take a more responsible approach to their citizenly duties after they are included in the electorate; and
3) the optimisation of political outcomes, where government improves when it can draw on the insights of a fuller section of the community.
I have argued that my experience of working with young people, and the recent evidence of the referendum campaign itself, demonstrate decisively that sixteen and seventeen year-olds in Scotland deserve the vote for each of these reasons.
However I don’t think these arguments exhaust democratic theory, and are in fact of secondary importance to a fundamental democratic value: the moral equality of all members of a political community.
If we take this idea seriously – and I think we should take it very, very seriously – we must radically transform our preconceptions about who should have the vote.
Rather than asking if we should extend the franchise, I think we should be asking ourselves why voting is restricted at all.
Votes for babies!