Last year, my Dad died at the age of 88. Losing a parent is something of a watershed moment in anyone’s life and it got me thinking very much about his own life. Born in 1929, he had to wait until he was 21 years old before he cast his first vote. At 14 he was already out at work, had lost his own father and was using his earnings to contribute to his family’s living costs. Therefore, by the time he’d reached the age of 16, I have no doubt he would have been a mature enough person to have known how he wanted to cast his ballot; I have no doubt either, that he would have exercised that right should it have been allowed.
In the wake of last year’s report of the Expert Panel on Welsh Assembly Electoral Reform and the recommendation that the minimum voting age for Welsh Assembly elections should be lowered to 16, I found myself discussing this with a number of seniors (mostly in their seventies and eighties).
‘16 is far too young to vote’, they concluded, until that is, they started to really think deeply about their own lives and what they themselves had been doing at 16! Just like my Dad, many were already in full-time employment, ‘courting seriously’, (just love that expression!), or about to embark on National Service.
That said, whatever the responsibilities thrust upon them, we all know that young people mature at different rates.
In Wales the Welsh Labour Government is going to extend the franchise to those over the age of 16 for local government elections (just as already happens in Scotland,) and yet 16- and 17- year- olds in England and Northern Ireland are being denied the same rights. Not only is this unsatisfactory but it also encourages elitism.
Evidence-based studies have shown that whether a person votes the first time they are eligible to vote can actually have a considerable effect on the likelihood of whether they adopt a voting habit thereafter. If enfranchising 16-year-olds increases the proportion of voters who do vote first time, turnout would rise in the long run.
In Austria where 16- year-olds were given the vote in 2007, evidence shows that launching a campaign which involved increasing citizenship education in schools, encouraging voter registration and raising awareness about elections, meant led to increased political knowledge among 16- and 17-year-olds. Similarly in Scotland, where Electoral Registration Officers visit schools to register eligible young people and Education Scotland offer guidance on how educational establishments can increase political literacy, evidence shows that 16- and 17- year- olds found it easier than 18 – 24 -year-olds to access information on how to cast their votes.
For me though it’s a no-brainer! If you are old enough to get a national insurance number, join a Trade Union, leave school, join the armed forces, make a baby and change your name by deed poll, then you are certainly old enough to vote!
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