The Disraeli Room

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Growing Into Politics: How lowering the voting age could combat turnout decline

18th February 2014

Abigail Rees argues that lowering the voting age will increase turnout among young people

Voter engagement among the young is low and seems set to fall still further: only 44% of those aged 18 voted in the 2010 general election, and only 12% of this age group say that they are “certain to vote” at the next from 30% just two years ago. Lowering the voting age to 16 would enable schools to become a place where democracy is learned and voters are registered, and could combat turnout decline among the young and more generally.

There are three reasons why low turnout among the young is cause for concern. Firstly, low youth turnout, coupled with population ageing, reduces the incentive for leaders of all parties to take into account the views of this demographic, making them instead more dependent on the growing older adult vote and thus less truly representative

Secondly, alongside increasing recognition of voting as a social act, its strong habitudinal properties have been repeatedly proven: though the ‘lifecycle’ pattern of increased voting in later years demonstrably exists, it is also the case that those who never make the voting habit are much less likely to take to it in later life, so a failure to motivate youth can have long-term consequences for political participation. Finally, these factors are rendered more serious by the additional discrepancy in turnout between those of high and low income: in the UK there is a 23% difference in the turnout rates between the top and bottom fifths of income earners. This means that the views of the young poor risk going completely unheard.

The reasons behind problems of low turnout are complex. They are also self-perpetuating, both generationally as children are strongly affected by their parents’ voting habits, and over the short term, as voters are influenced by their peers. Lowering the voting age to 16 and making schools the place where this cycle of disengagement is broken can help to change voter habits permanently and make our governments more representative of those they govern.

A 2012 study from the University of Copenhagen shows the importance of the short-term socialisation process in voter turnout. It seems that social elements relating to a particular election – political discussions before elections, and even the social aspect of voting itself – are more significant than previously believed in determining whether an individual will vote. This is true to a greater extent for young voters, who do not yet have a habit formed either way. Usually the home is identified as the primary source of this influence, but in order to combat the cycle in which low income and low turnout are linked, such short-term socialisation could also take place in schools.

This is what has been done in Austria, where the voting age has been progressively lowered to 16, alongside a range of additional measures including mock elections in schools and discussions with politicians. So far turnout among 16- and 17-year-olds targeted by these measures has been higher than for other comparable first-time voters, and is not in decline, showing no evidence of the temporary ‘novelty effect’ of a change in legislation. It is clear that schools can play a significant role in making the first election a positive experience and making voting a norm. This vision of school, as an institution where norms are passed on, and social and political participation fostered, can be put into practice through lowering the voting age so that first-time voters are still in compulsory education and learn about voting in schools where their learning can be put immediately into practice. Voting in local and general elections should be seen as a natural extension of other democratic practices, like voting for school councils.

The potential impact on voter registration, a prerequisite for participation, is also a significant reason to consider lowering the voting age. As of December 2011, at least 6 million people in Great Britain were not registered to vote, of which almost half mistakenly believe themselves to be. If voter registration were to be more closely linked to schools, new voters would be more likely to register, helping to address the problem of lower voter registration among the young: only 56% of those aged 19-24 are registered, compared with 94% of those aged 65 and over. Again the influence of schools could also serve to counteract the generational effect of voter registration, and also the discrepancies in terms of income. Schools are already the conduit for national programs such as vaccinations, why not make them the site for administering democracy as well?

The idea of lowering the voting age also has political currency at the moment. The Liberal Democrats already back it, and Labour seem increasingly likely to do so. While David Cameron has stated his opposition, the coalition recently launched the Innovation Fund, an open call for new ways to improve engagement with the democratic process among under-represented groups. The citizenship aspect of the curriculum, introduced under Labour, has also been kept by the coalition, which is looking to build on the Rock Enrol! lesson framework piloted in schools. Such programmes would be greatly strengthened if the messages that young people are receiving in school have direct relevance to their new voting capacity.

As the government moves towards individual rather than household registration, now is the ideal time to reap the rewards that lowering the voting age could bring. This could be an issue which unites the three parties in an effort to combat the income and age discrepancies in voter turnout, and to inform and engage a new generation.

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