After her famous Hamilton by-election victory, Winnie Ewing used her maiden speech to Parliament to argue that the voting age should be lowered to 16. At the time, the franchise was only available to 21 year olds and over. When the franchise was initially extended to women, it was only at age 30 that women could exercise the right to vote. It was 18, and not 16 as Ewing argued, that the voting age was lowered to in 1969. But surely the continual retreat of the cut-off age shows that this is essentially an arbitrary line? There is no difference worth mentioning between a 17 and an 18 year old. So why should we accept 18 as the final, unalterable age of full citizenship?
There will inevitably be those who argue that 16 year olds lack the intelligence or political understanding to exercise the vote.
Historically, this is the same argument that has been used to deny democratic rights to women and minorities across the world – and if a certain level of intelligence is required to have the vote, why is nobody proposing mandatory IQ tests as voters enter polling stations?
The rights of citizenship should be applied at the same stage as which we expect the responsibilities of citizenship. The argument is so well-worn precisely because it is so compelling – if you can leave school, and enter the workforce, and pay taxes, and get married, and serve in the army, then you should be allowed to vote. This is a basic question of democratic accountability.
There is a wider argument to consider, though. Considering the awful turnouts in last week’s local elections, we should all recognise the importance of reengaging the electorate with politics. No single measure will do this. But by lowering the voting age, we would send a powerful message to our young people that their voices count. Those who begin voting at a younger age are more likely to remain active voters as they grow older, and engaging first-time voters at a young age is essential for ensuring a healthy democracy. There are practical benefits also. The multitude of elections with different voting systems can be off-putting and confusing. Education in these issues is fine, but would have an increased relevance if pupils were voting during their school years, or soon after.
So what of the referendum? There is much scepticism about plans to lower the voting age for this single vote. The allegation directed at the SNP is that the policy for Votes at 16 is simply tactical. Detractors claim that younger voters are more likely to support independence, and so extending the franchise is simply an attempt to shore up support for the Yes camp. This is as patronising as it is inaccurate. Extending the vote to 16 and 17 year olds is not just an SNP policy, but a policy supported by many across the political spectrum. In fact, almost 200 MPs voted to lower the voting age to 16 for the ill-fated AV referendum. The hypocrisy here is clear – you can have the vote at 16 if you want, but not for this referendum. Opinion polls don’t tend to survey 16 and 17 year olds – never mind those who’ll be turning 16 in 2014 – and so we can’t measure whether support for independence really is higher in that age group. But so what if it is? In a democracy, the right to vote should never be determined by likely voting intentions. The age where the franchise begins should be a point of principle, not calculated by political manoeuvring. Ideally, we could lower the voting age for all elections, but that power does not lie with the Scottish Government and progress from Westminster does not seem to be forthcoming.
The Independence referendum is the single most important democratic decision we have faced as a nation in our history, and to exclude our young citizens from participating in a decision that will shape the rest of their lives seems massively unfair.
To do so on the technicality that they are not, as of yet, able to vote for their local councillor is ridiculous, especially considering that over half of our adult population never bothered to do so themselves. If our 16 and 17 year olds want the opportunity to vote – let them.