DEMANDS to reduce the voting age for all elections in the UK have become part of political debate in the UK. Now, a Leverhulme Trust research grant of £119,740 that will see two academics evaluate past and present debates on lowering the voting age is timely and apposite.
Undertaking the work will be the University of Huddersfield’s Dr Andrew Mycock and Professor Jonathan Tonge of the University of Liverpool. Dr Mycock explains the background to the research and the current political sway at Westminster:
“All the political parties at Westminster, with the (important) exceptions of the Conservatives and Democratic Unionists, support lowering the voting age. 16- and 17-year-olds voted in the Scottish Independence Referendum in 2014 and now vote in Scottish Parliament and local council elections. Wales may follow. In 2015, the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee recommended an inquiry into the voting age for Westminster elections.
However, as demonstrated during the recent House of Commons debate on whether to lower the voting age across the UK, supporters and opponents of ‘votes at 16’ often draw on narrow, repetitive and speculative arguments to promote their case. There is a need for proper, evidence-based, analysis of the emergent politics of youth enfranchisement across the UK.
The research project will analyse historical and contemporary debates concerning voting age reform, youth democratic participation, and attendant rights and responsibility of youth and adult citizenship. It will compare arguments used when the UK lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 in 1969 – the first state in the world to do so – to those now deployed. The international context to the debate will be considered via comparative analysis of the impact upon youth political engagement in the (few) countries where votes-at-16 are allowed.
The positions of political parties and their arguments as to how broader youth democratic participation and civic engagement might be developed via a change to the voting age will be analysed. The project will also measure attitudes towards lowering the voting age among 18+ voters and 16- and 17-year-olds, including testing the views of those partially-franchised (in Scotland) and non-franchised (elsewhere in the UK).
Voting age reform needs to be considered in the broader context of when a society believes that children – as citizens under the age of 18 are defined by the United Nations – should acquire rights and responsibilities. Whether a 16-year-old should be prohibited from serving on a jury, standing as a candidate in an election, driving, or buying an alcoholic drink, yet allowed to vote, needs serious consideration.”
The research grant will build on previous evidence-based research undertaken by Dr Mycock and Professor Tonge. Both were part of the Youth Citizenship Commission, an independent body established by the UK Government in 2008-9 to encourage more young people to engage with and participate in democratic politics. The Commission also assessed the case for and against lowering the voting age for elections across the UK. Although it recommended that the age of enfranchisement for Westminster elections should remain at 18, it encouraged the devolved legislatures in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland to consider ‘votes at 16’.
Dr Mycock also recently chaired the Kirklees Council Democracy Commission, a year-long engagement with local citizens including staff and students at the University of Huddersfield. The Democracy Commission’s final report recommended that central government should lower the voting age to 16 for local elections in Kirklees.
“We are grateful to the Leverhulme Trust for supporting research which will encourage an evidenced-based approach to voting age reform,” said Dr Mycock. “It has clear policy-making and public benefit, informing and enriching the growing political debate surrounding ‘votes-at-16’ and youth transitions to adulthood in the UK.”