Belfast Telegraph

Jon Tonge: Calls for voting at age of 16, but would reform end teen apathy?

Less than a week to go before the verdicts of more than 800,000 voters - assuming turnout holds up - decide the fate of Northern Ireland's politicians
Less than a week to go before the verdicts of more than 800,000 voters - assuming turnout holds up - decide the fate of Northern Ireland's politicians
Jon Tonge

By Jon Tonge

Less than a week to go before the verdicts of more than 800,000 voters - assuming turnout holds up - decide the fate of Northern Ireland's politicians.

But could those 800,000-plus electors soon be joined by younger ones?

An under-the-radar feature of the election is the consensus across four of the main five parties that the voting age should be lowered to 16. The DUP, as often the case, is the exception.

Given that focus groups we have run in Northern Ireland on the subject - from a range of backgrounds - all agreed that Sinn Fein would benefit most from the change, you can perhaps see why.

Reducing the voting age to 16 could add nearly 48,000 young people to the electoral roll.

Considering the marginality of several Northern Ireland constituencies, adding an average of more than 2,600 to each could make a difference to election outcomes - or a tight border poll.

Momentum for votes at 16 has been growing for years.

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The proposal is listed in the Sinn Fein, Alliance and UUP election manifestos.

The UUP demands it "to demonstrate that we value and trust our young people of tomorrow". Given only one in 10 18 to 24-year-olds voted UUP at the last Westminster contest, at least no one can accuse Steve Aiken's party of naked self-interest.

Of all parties elected to the most recent Westminster parliament, only the Conservatives and the DUP opposed lowering the voting age - and some Conservative MPs do support change.

Scotland reduced the age of franchise for elections to its parliament and local councils in 2015, having done so for the previous year's independence referendum. Wales followed this year.

Yet Northern Ireland's devolved executive does not have the power - a rather important and curious anomaly that the parties favouring change do not mention in their respective manifestos.

There is no devolved Executive of course. As with much else, Westminster or the Northern Ireland Office will have to decide.

But is lowering the voting age a good idea? Whilst manifestos are policy pledges not discussions, it would have been useful for the party manifestos to tell us why.

The UK led and the world followed in lowering the voting age from 21 to 18 half a century ago.

Yet that change occurred amid consensus that the age of adulthood was 18.

There is no agreement that 16-year-olds are adults. Votes for children may have scant appeal as a slogan.

It might seem odd that young Scots could decide on the independence of their country in 2014 but, as children needing health and safety protections, they could not buy alcohol, cigarettes or fireworks to celebrate or commiserate afterwards.

Sixteen-year-olds could not drive to a friend's house to discuss.

Under the last Labour government - they used to happen, younger readers - I was appointed by the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, to chair the Youth Citizenship Commission.

Its tasks were to better connect young people to politics and examine whether the voting age should be lowered.

Whether a middle-aged, politics-obsessed professor was really the person to solve youth disconnect is a moot point. I didn't, anyway.

Only a minority of 18 to 24-year-olds voted at the general elections immediately prior to the commission's formation. And only a minority voted at the next three.

In terms of 16 and 17-year-olds, they were evenly divided on whether the voting age should be lowered.

The Electoral Commission had earlier found a clear majority of existing voters against the idea. So, we decided against recommending change.

Given the advent of "age-quake", in which age is the most important variable in party choice in England, I don't think we did Labour many favours.

Public opinion is showing signs of movement, however. Our recent survey for the Leverhulme Trust, conducted by Survation, found adult voters evenly divided on lowering the voting age and most 16 and 17-year-olds now in favour. Brexit may have made a difference.

There are serious arguments for a reduction - just not the ones on tax, military service and marriage usually trotted out.

Fewer people leave school at 16, get a job and pay income tax than ever before.

You cannot see frontline service in the forces until 18 and no one gets married at 16 these days - you wouldn't get the parental permission you need anyway. Last year 99% of Northern Ireland's marriages were of people aged 20 and over.

Credible contentions for change lie elsewhere.

Votes-at-16 would help balance an ageing society.

The NI Statistics and Research Agency estimates that by 2041 the population aged 65 and over will have increased by 25% - although if Northern Ireland's health service crisis continues apace, that trend might be reversed.

Arguments over capacity can favour change. A 16-year-old may have better critical faculties than a struggling 85-year-old - but there would understandably be outrage if the latter was disenfranchised.

So future elections could have different rules. With some polling stations located in schools and the new voters on site, maybe educational establishments could stay open.

Would change be worthwhile?

Only one in three 18 to 24-year-olds in Northern Ireland voted in the 2017 Westminster election.

If 16 and 17-year-olds are given the right, maybe it ought to be exercised?

In the meantime, enjoy the show this Thursday. Adults only.

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool and principal investigator on an ongoing two-year Leverhulme Trust project on the voting age debate

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