Belfast Telegraph

Voting age needs to be lowered

By Naomi Long

A democracy gives its citizens many rights. But at the core is being able to vote and hold to account those in power.

However, one group of potential voters is being left behind and denied that privilege. While young people in Scotland are being given the opportunity to vote in the 2016 election, nearly 50,000 people aged 16 and 17 in Northern Ireland are still being excluded.

There are simple arguments in favour of lowering the voting age here. If people aged 16 are old enough to pay taxes, they should have a say in how that money is spent.

They should also have the chance to hold to account those who take decisions about how those taxes are spent.

Not allowing someone contributing financially to a government the ability to scrutinise them is not just unfair, it is also undemocratic.

Imagine being 16, working, paying tax and with a real interest in politics and how public money is spent, but being unable to exercise any influence.

In the last parliament, I voted for a proposed amendment to the Parliamentary Voting and Constituencies Bill that would have allowed 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in all elections.

While it was disappointing it did not pass, it does not mean it is the end of the issue, as it is one I will continue to press with the new government.

While extending the franchise to 16-year-olds may not generate an increase in the number of young people voting, it is certainly one of several ways to tackle the growing disengagement from political life in this age group.

It would also make civic education in schools more meaningful and allow young people to develop the habit of democratic participation at a younger age.

We must not lose any more opportunities to demonstrate to young people we regard them as equal citizens, respecting them and their opinions. Many of the decisions taken today will shape the rest of their lives.

Young people are not the future; they are the here and now and are as capable as anyone of exercising their vote wisely.

They should be given the opportunity and encouraged to do just that.

Naomi Long is the Alliance candidate in East Belfast

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