As most 18-24 year-olds do not use their vote, is 16 is too young?

Arguments seem to cluster roughly around three questions:

  1. Representation
    Young people are tax-payers and are old enough to take on a range of adult roles, such as marriage, parenting and full-time employment, So, are they not old enough to vote?
  2. Maturity
    Are young people of 16 mature enough to vote? Do they have enough understanding of the world to make sense of politics?
  3. Responsibility
    Will 16-18 year-olds take their responsibility seriously enough if given the vote.

    1. Representation

Many argue that young people should have a say in shaping the policies that directly affect them.

To some, this means having a say in who represents them. To others, it means simply that they should be consulted on particular issues. Some go as far to say that young people should only be able to influence discussions that affect them directly affect: a policy that would have huge implications for the whole voting system if it was extended to all voters.

'No taxation without representation'

The phrase 'no taxation without representation' gets used for all sorts of issues, and is often heard in support of a lower voting age. It comes from the time when the American colonies were resisting the tea tax imposed on them by the British Parliament. They felt their representatives should have a say in decisions that directly affected them.

In regard to the voting age, many people argue that, as many 16 year-olds are tax-payers. They should be able to vote for the people who set those taxes.

However, others say that if we followed this argument to its logical conclusion we would end up giving the vote to young children, because everybody pays tax in one form or another (VAT on sweets and video games, for example).

2. Maturity

The main arguments around the lower voting age are in regard to maturity.

Those in favour say that if 16 year-olds are mature enough to make important decisions such as marriage and joining the army, they are therefore mature enough to make decisions about who should represent them in Parliament.

This argument is supported by the increasing amount of consultation with young people on issues of public policy:

'There is a certain illogicality in the fact that the views of young people are much sought after on the implications of public policy, their opinions matter in the formulation of government policy, but yet they cannot vote.'
(Thompson 2002)

Too young to make decisions?

Some opponents agree that the ages of decision should be aligned. But they think the age at which other decisions can be made - such as to join the army - should be raised to meet the voting age, not vice versa. They believe that 16 year-olds are not mature enough to make such decisions.

For example, Ellie Levenson (2002, p. 9) of the Fabian Society asks:

'How many of us really think a sixteen year old is capable of making a life changing and legally binding decision such as marriage? Financial institutions certainly do not think so. You must be eighteen to sign binding contracts (except for things that are considered essential for the maintenance of life) or to own land in your own name. Therefore a sixteen year old, married or not, cannot apply for a mortgage or own the house in which they live.'

Age is not the issue

However, maturity and age do not always go together. There will always be people who are not deemed mature enough intellectually:

'My experience of elections... suggests that it would be quite wrong to suggest that everybody over the age of 18 has this maturity, level of knowledge and interest-while nobody aged 16 or 17 possesses these qualities ... This Bill [Voting Age (Reduction to 16)] does not suggest that voting should be compulsory for 16 and 17 year-olds. It would simply allow those who attain the age of 16 by the end of October 2004 to vote in public elections thereafter-if they wish to do so. The age at which it may be appropriate to vote will actually vary from person to person.'
(Rennard 2003)

Also, it is argued that plenty of people well over the age of 18 are a lot less capable of making informed decisions than many 16 year-olds:

'Many 18-year-olds do not make informed decisions. In fact many 40-year-olds do not make informed decisions and this does not mean we deny them the vote'
(Idebate 2000)

3. Responsibility

Some people think a lack of maturity will lead to irresponsible voting:

'If we were to lower the voting age from 18 to 16, so bringing in vast numbers of semi-educated-and, indeed, sometimes under-educated-children, we would make democracy in this country even less reliable'
(Renton 2003)

Responsible voting not encouraged

Others argue that young people in the UK are not encouraged to vote responsibly.

Many say the current trends of low voter turnout among younger voters prove that most young people are not encouraged to vote at all. They say we have a duty to encourage them:

'Present trends of young voter participation in elections do not paint a rosy picture for the future...

'According to Mori, just 39 per cent of young voters aged 18-24 said they voted [in 2001] and only 45 per cent of those aged 25-34... Only 60 per cent of young people are registered to vote, compared to 92 per cent of the whole electoral population...

'Give them a chance to participate in political life and directly influence the future of their country and some of us might be surprised by their maturity and the idea that those aged sixteen are not capable of voting sensibly will seem even more ridiculous than it does at present'.

(Thompson 2002)

A glance at some of the key moments in the history of Parliament in England.

Note: Throughout, Parliament refers to Parliament at Westminster.

13th Century

From the 13th Century, two knights are elected from each county by the county courts. Soon after, they are joined by two representatives from the boroughs.

This is not obligatory. As representation in Parliament is originally considered a burden rather than a blessing, not every local community is willing to pay for MPs to go to Westminster.

This results in gross inequalities in different parts of the country.


Owners of freehold land worth over 40 shillings a year can vote in county elections.


Wales is now represented in Parliament.


Scotland is now represented in Parliament.


Ireland is now represented in Parliament.

1430 - 1832

Some monarchs extended the franchise in some boroughs, in attempts to influence the make-up of Parliament.

However, the qualification to vote is often arbitrary.

In some boroughs, every male head of a household is eligible to vote, while in others it is restricted to those that own property or pay local taxes.

Around one in five adult men can vote.


The Great Reform Act cleans up corruption in the voting system. Every man who pays more than £10 a year in rates or rent can now vote.

However, this only applies to the boroughs.

The 40-Shilling freehold (and a host of other possible qualifications) still applies in the counties.

The Act raises the number of voters by 38 per cent. 720,784 can now vote, in a population of over 10,000,000 of voting age.


The Second Reform Act extends the franchise. Although this enables over two and a half million men to vote, it only applies to the boroughs.

People cannot vote if they claimed Poor Relief in the qualifying period.


The secret ballot is introduced. Before this, the entire community would be watching to see how people voted on polling day.


The Third Reform Act equalises voting restrictions between counties and boroughs.

Over 50 per cent of adult men can now vote.

Most British men over 21 may vote, if they have lived in the same place for a year.

1918, February

The Representation of the People Act gives the vote to women over the age of 30. It also reduces the time that voters must live in the same place from one year to six months.

1918, 21 November

A Bill is passed allowing women to be Members of Parliament.


The Equal Franchise Act lowers the voting age for women to 21.


The voting age for both men and women is lowered to 18. This takes effect from 1970.

1998, 1 July

Dr Ashok Kumar introduces a Ten Minute Rule bill. The debate is about empowering local authorities to consult with young people about services designed for their benefit.

2001, 8 December

Matthew Green MP introduces the bill Elections (Entitlement to Vote At Age 16) under the Ten Minute Rule. The bill is allocated a date for a second reading but runs out of parliamentary time.

2002,23 January

Prime Minister Tony Blair tells Mps, 'I am not sure that we would always want 16-year-olds to do all the things they can do. I think that it [the voting age] should remain as it is'.

2002, 27 November

Lord Lucus introduces the bill Voting Age (Reduction to 16) in the House of Lords.

2003, 9 January

The bill Voting Age (Reduction to 16) has its second reading in the House of Lords.

2003, 27 February

The Electoral Commission announces a review of the minimum age for voting and candidacy in UK public elections.

2003, Summer

A consultation takes place as part of the Electoral Commission's review of the minimum voting age.

2004, 19 April

The Electoral Commission submits its final report to the government. It recommends that the age at which someone can become an MP (the 'candidacy' age) is lowered to 18. However, it does not recommend lowering the voting age to 16, saying there is not enough public support for it.

1. Maturity

IDEA Debatabase: Minimum Voting Age of 16

"At 16 a person can get married and have children. If we allow them this responsibility, we should also recognise that they are mature enough to vote."
(Idebate 2000)

"In today's society 16-year-olds are more mature than ever before and there is no significant gap between an 18-year-old and a 16-year-old's ability to vote; the distinction is arbitrary."
(Idebate 2000)

"Many 18-year-olds do not make informed decisions. In fact many 40-year-olds do not make informed decisions and this does not mean we deny them the vote."
(Idebate 2000)

"It is sentimental to argue that everyone should have the vote. With this argument, why not 14-year-olds? The fact is that you must have limits and while some 16-year-olds probably are mature enough to vote, the status quo protects against the majority who are not."
(Idebate 2000)

"That the fact that more young people are smoking, drinking and having sex earlier than before does not mean that they are more mature. 16-year-olds are still children mentally and much development happens in the next two years. If anything, the voting age should be increased to 21 to ensure full maturity."
(Idebate 2000)

"Many of our minimum ages occur at different times. For example you can have sex at 16, but you cannot drink until you are 18. Should we give the vote to people who we do not recognise as mature enough to drink or to see The Blair Witch Project?"
(Idebate 2000).

Lord Renton (Conservative)

"The lowering of the voting age from 21 to 18, some 34 years ago, as the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, pointed out, increased the number of voters who found it difficult to understand the issues or their solutions. If we were to lower the voting age from 18 to 16, so bringing in vast numbers of semi-educated-and, indeed, sometimes under-educated-children, we would make democracy in this country even less reliable. For those reasons, I trust that the Bill will never be enacted."
(Renton 2003)

Lord Rennard (Liberal Democrat)

"It will, of course, be suggested by some that many young people are not sufficiently mature, well informed or interested to cast a vote. My experience of elections, however, suggests that it would be quite wrong to suggest that everybody over the age of 18 has this maturity, level of knowledge and interest-while nobody aged 16 or 17 possesses these qualities.

"This Bill does not suggest that voting should be compulsory for 16 and 17 year-olds. It would simply allow those who attain the age of 16 by the end of October 2004 to vote in public elections thereafter-if they wish to do so. The age at which it may be appropriate to vote will actually vary from person to person."
(Rennard 2003)

Lord Goodhart (Liberal Democrat)

"Students in years 12 and 13 are capable of taking an active and lively interest in politics. Anyone who has stood as a parliamentary candidate in a general election would agree that school students in their A-level years are one of the most challenging and lively audiences that one could meet. They ask difficult and perceptive questions. I remember an occasion when one of my opponents in the old Kensington constituency was "mangled" by the sixth form at Holland Park comprehensive school because he talked to them as if they were a bunch of 12 year-olds."
(Goodhart 2003)

"The fact that some people, such as the noble Lord, Lord Renton, have changed their minds since they reached the age of 16 is no argument for saying that 16 year-olds should not have the vote. Indeed, some of us would say that the noble Lord's second thoughts were not as good as his original ones."
(Goodhart 2003)

Lord Lucas (Conservative)

"If we are putting someone in a position where he can take the responsibility of starting and bringing up a family, with all the difficult decisions that that involves as regards looking forward and considering such issues, and if we tell him that he is free to commit himself to fight and die for this country as a member of the Armed Forces, as well as taking other similar decisions, it is very hard then to say to him that voting involves taking a much more responsible and difficult decision. I believe that we should follow the consistency of our previous decisions and say that 16 is the age at which we grant this sort of responsibility."
(Lucas 2003a)

2. Participation

IDEA Debatabase: Minimum Voting Age of 16

"An historical principle behind democracy in the UK has been that of "no taxation without representation". At 16 you can get a job and pay taxes and it is undemocratic that you have no say in who sets those taxes. Areas such as the minimum wage and benefits also affect you directly and you should have a say in these policies."
(Idebate 2000)

"Within limitations, the wider pool of voters we have, the better it is for democracy, as it increases representation."
(Idebate 2000)

The Earl of Selborne (Conservative)

"I take the view that if we can encourage people who have been inducted in a way for which there is presently an appetite to consider their responsibilities in society and at the same time cement their interest by giving them the opportunity to vote, I quietly and confidently expect that that would be appreciated and that their views would be just as valid as those of Members of this House."
(Selborne 2003)

"I think that I peaked as a politician at about 16. It has been downhill ever since in terms of lack of interest."
(Selborne 2003)

"At present, the record of the 18 to 28 year-old age group is, frankly, even worse than that of the population at large. That suggests to me disenchantment. It suggests that not having been able to participate in a system about which they were taught two or three years before they were able to exercise their vote was something of a turn-off-an opportunity lost. It takes a great deal of time to return people to an interest in the subject and to an understanding of their responsibilities."
(Selborne 2003)

Lord Goodhart (Liberal Democrat)

"My Lords, if older school students are allowed to vote, I believe that the casting of their vote could become a kind of rite of passage. It is much more likely to happen with 16 and 17-year olds still at school than with those who are 18 or older. University students, particularly if they are living away from home and therefore away from their own constituency, are likely to take a reduced interest in politics because they have lost their constituency links. They will take a reduced interest unless they belong to that class of student politicians who are sometimes student political nerds. If 18 year-olds are not at university, they are mostly in the workplace, where there is unlikely to be a great deal of talk about politics."
(Goodhart 2003)

Charles Hendry MP (Conservative)

"I think it is more important at this stage that we focus on why seventy per cent of first time votes [sic] who had the vote didn't use it, rather than extending voting rights to other groups of people at this stage."
(Hendry 2002b)

Lord Maclennan of Rogart (Liberal Democrat)

"Although lowering the age of voting may not alone affect the engagement of young people, the Labour government of 1966 considered that it was a significant factor in reducing the voting age from 21 to 18."
(Maclennan 2003)

John Barrett MP (Liberal Democrat)

"Lowering the age would not increase the percentage of people voting, but it would increase young people's engagement."
(Barrett 2003)

Socialist Worker website

My daughter left school at 16 and went to work in a shop. Pretty soon she was coming home with payslips and asking me to translate them.

Before I even got onto the figures themselves I was thinking, why should a payslip be hard to understand? It took me several months to figure out that she was entitled to a tax rebate.

And when I spoke to the Inland Revenue bloke he admitted that if I hadn't sorted this out they would have kept the 500 quid. "But why are they taxing me?" she said. "To pay for stuff like bombs and the NHS," I said, pretending to be neutral.

"So why I haven't I got the vote?" she said.

There's no answer to that, is there? How interesting that we have a system that can slide 16 year olds into the wage system but can't let them join in the voting shenanigans.

Tim Rathbone MP (Conservative)

"This is not blue sky dreaming; it is not an impossibility. It is possible that the new requirement will come to pass. It is not a new fad. Our electoral system has developed over the centuries: we have made quantitative reforms, such as broadening the franchise so that men and women have equal voting rights; the voting age was lowered recently and, even more recently, people on holiday or living abroad were allowed to vote. We are not unused to changing our electoral circumstances and methods."
(Rathbone 1993)

Matthew Green MP (Liberal Democrat)

"We cannot deny someone their rights simply because they choose not to use them. If we played that game, we would have to forfeit the rights of almost half the population in the UK, given the results of the last general election-some democracy we would have if we did that."
(Green 2001)

"We cannot take young people for granted. As the research also shows, if we fail to nurture young people's interest in politics, we lose it. As many as 47 per cent. of 16 to 17-year-olds said that voting could have a lot of influence; that dropped to only 35 per cent. once they reached their early twenties-a 12 per cent. drop in just five years. How can we tell young people that we are interested in their views, yet at the same time not let them have the vote?"
(Green 2001)

IDEA Debatabase: Minimum Voting Age of 16

"Policies on nursery education affect 4-year-olds, but it does not mean that we give them a vote! We must trust mature adults to vote on the behalf of children."
(Idebate 2000)

3. Responsibility and influence

IDEA Debatabase: Minimum Voting Age of 16

"Most 16-year-olds would either vote the way their parents voted, or deliberately vote the other way to be rebellious. They would not consider all the issues and make an informed decision."
(Idebate 2000)

Lord Campbell-Savours (Labour)

"My Lords, perhaps I may ask the noble Lord a question. Does he not believe that there is a danger of parental bullying of 16 year-old kids when they go to vote? That is a danger."
(Campbell-Savours 2003a)

International examples

Charles Hendry MP (Conservative)

"Some 51 per cent. of 15 to 24-year-olds said that they were not interested in politics at all. That gives some indication of the problems that we must address, but none of those people would be helped by reducing the voting age. That distracts us from our task of getting people to turn out when they are entitled to do so. The book "Political Systems of the World" says that the voting age is lower than 18 in only seven countries, including Iran, Cuba and North Korea. The message in those countries is that people are allowed to vote at 16, but only for the one party that is allowed to stand. Changing the voting age does not, therefore, necessarily advance the democratic process."
(Hendry 2002a)

Lord Monson (Cross-bench)

"It is fascinating to compare the setting of different voting ages in different countries historically. Some 50 or so years ago, Professor C. Northcote Parkinson set out to rank the nations of the world according to their degree of civilisation overall as he saw it. Factors considered in this evaluation included long average life expectancy, low infant mortality, free access to good quality medical care and education, low crime rates, low road accident rates, minimal censorship and so on. Although this formula was devised by Professor Northcote Parkinson himself, few political commentators challenged it or disagreed with it.

"The half-dozen countries deemed on this basis to be the most civilised in the world included the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Yet the minimum voting age in Norway and Sweden at around that time was 23, and in Denmark and the Netherlands it was 25. Conversely, the first major countries to lower their minimum voting age to 18 were the Soviet Union, and South Africa in the days of apartheid. As Desmond Tutu used to complain wearily, although neither he nor any other highly-educated black person had access to the ballot box, any semi-literate 18 year-old white labourer had full voting rights-and we all know what a farce voting in the Soviet Union used to be. So clearly there is no historical correlation between a low minimum voting age and what might be described as 'national virtue'."
(Monson 2003)

"One accepts that Britain is afflicted by a frankly inadequate birth rate, causing the average age of the population to go up and up, with many unfortunate consequences. One of these is that the average age of the electorate is obviously rising in tandem, posing the theoretical danger that the interests and aspirations of younger people may be sidelined.

"But this presupposes that most older people are either childless or, if they are parents, are unconcerned with or dismissive of the younger generation's interests and ambitions. ... But, even if I am over sanguine in supposing that there is no real clash of generations - I still submit that lowering the voting age to 16 would simply substitute the fire for the frying pan. Because, unless the retirement age were smartly revised upwards to, say, 68 or 70 for both men and women, there would be a danger that recipients of so-called "state" aid - would increasingly outvote the working population in matters relating to the allocation of resources. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, spoke of no taxation without representation. One could argue that there ought not to be any representation without taxation, but I shall not go into that issue now."
(Monson 2003)

Lord Bassam of Brighton (Labour)

"Throughout the world, 18 years of age is by far the most common minimum age for voting. Some 142 countries set their voting age at 18 for at least one of their chambers of parliament: 171 chambers altogether have a franchise at 18. Only three, Korea, Indonesia, and the Sudan, set the voting age at 17, with a further three, Brazil, Cuba, and Nicaragua, permitting voting at 16, and just one, Iran, setting the age at 15."
(Bassam 2003)

Lord Campbell-Savours (Labour)

"I thank my noble friend for giving way. I wonder whether he could consider why extreme regimes have a higher incidence of voting at the age of 16 than other kinds of democratic regimes. Can he express a view as to why that might be the case?"
(Campbell-Savours 2003b)

Lord Lucas (Conservative)

"I am not put off by ... what happens in other regimes. We should be extremely grateful that 15 year-olds can vote in Iran. That has brought a measure of democracy to that country and, indeed, an interest in political radicalism. I do not believe that the 15 year-olds are the source of power for the mullahs; neither has Brazil suffered notably in its recent elections-at least from the noble Lord's point of view-from the fact that 16 year-olds are able to vote. I should be surprised if the noble Lord were to disagree with that. It does not seem to me that such parallels should be drawn in this respect."
(Lucas 2003b)


Barrett, J. 2003, WH Deb, (2002-03) 398, col 231WH.

Bassam 2003, HL Deb (2002-03) 642, col. 1120.

Campbell-Savours 2003a, HL Deb (2002-03) 642, col. 1108.

Campbell-Savours 2003b, HL Deb (2002-03) 642, col. 1120.

Goodhart 2003, HL Deb (2002-03) 642, col. 1114.

Green, M. 2001, HC Deb, (2001-2002) 377 col. 148.

Hendry, C. 2002a, WH Deb (2001-02) 381, col. 39WH.

Hendry, C. 2002b, Hendry calls for renewed engagement with young voters [Online], [2003, May 6].

Idebate 2000, Minimum voting age of 16 [Online], [2003, May 6].

Levenson, E. 2002, 'Vote early, vote often?', Fabian Review, vol. 114, no. 4, p. 9.

Lucas 2003a, HL Deb (2002-03) 642, col. 1121.

Lucas 2003b, HL Deb (2002-03) 642, col. 1122.

Maclennan 2003, HL Deb (2002-2003) 642, col. 1119.

Monson 2003, HL Deb (2002-2003) 642, col. 1111.

Rathbone 1993, HC Deb (1992-93), 228, col. 358.

Rennard 2003, HL Deb (2002-2003) 642, col. 1109.

Renton 2003, HL Deb (2002-2003) 642, col. 1110.

Selborne 2003, HL Deb (2002-2003) 642, col. 1113.

Thompson, P. 2002, 'Vote early, vote often?', Fabian Review, vol. 114, no. 4, p. 8.