Recently, 16 and 17 year olds in Scotland were able to vote for the first time. There are a number of campaigns supporting the decreasing of the UK voting age to 16, and Labour has recently backed this, although it is unlikely that anything will be in place before the next general election. The age at which individuals can cast votes and take part in the democratic process is going to become a more important and more prominent issue in the coming year. It is important to remember the reasons why the ability to vote matters in these debates though.
Voting is a mark of citizenship; those without the right to vote are not classed as citizens by the state. Children and young people are generally considered as dependents rather than citizens, and turning 18 has become the point at which we not only become adults, but also citizens and fully functional member of society. Being a citizen doesn’t only mean having the right to vote, it also means upholding the responsibilities of the state. In exchange to agreeing to laws that impact upon individual freedoms, citizens receive certain protected rights. For example, in agreeing that theft is unacceptable, we receive the right to own property and have this right protected by the state.
This balance of rights and responsibilities is unequal for the UKs’ young people though. Under 18’s have very few of the rights of citizenship, but are still expected to uphold the responsibilities. A child of 10 is accountable to criminal law in the UK, and whilst young people generally receive reduced sentences, there is still the available option of life imprisonment if the judge deems the offence serious enough. For this level of responsibility, what rights do young people receive in exchange? Very few; and they are being rapidly reduced by government.
Until recently 16 year olds could choose if they wished to stay on in education, they could also choose whether or not they wanted to smoke, these have since been changed and restricted and soon only 18 year olds will have the power to make these decisions for themselves. Whilst it can be said that these changes have been made for young people’s own good, this assumes that young people do not know what is best for them. By removing the ability to choose, the government is assuming that young people lack the capacity to make decisions. Young people have very little power of choice regarding their lives; they receive the responsibilities of citizenship, but none of the rights that are supposed to balance this.
The power to vote is the mark of who is considered a citizen in a democratic society. Historical restrictions on voting based on gender, marital status, class, and race are now viewed as ridiculous and unjust, and we currently try to see our society as being better, more inclusive. Young people are currently excluded from our society. It is expected that they maintain the responsibilities of citizenship, whilst receiving none of the rights. Lowering the voting age would be a way of redressing this imbalance, and give young people more power over how the world in which they live and participate is shaped.