On 3rd March 2020 the Lowering the Voting Age project team hosted a policy-making event at the Pierhead Building in Cardiff on ‘Implementing Votes-at-16 in Wales’ in collaboration with the Welsh Government and the Electoral Reform Society Cymru. The event bought together nearly 100 politicians, policy-makers, civil society groups, academics, and young people from across Wales to develop policies to ensure the successful implementation of ‘Votes-at-16’ in Wales. It was sponsored by the Llywydd, Elin Jones AM Presiding Officer for the National Assembly for Wales, who welcomed participants. In her opening address, she highlighted the importance of voting age reform in the democratic development of the Senedd, ensuring that young people feel engaged and included within Welsh politics.
It began with presentations of three recent major research projects exploring the potential implications for youth democratic education and participation in Wales of lowering the voting age to 16. Dr Tom Loughran from the Leverhulme Trust’s Lowering the Voting Age in the UK project, based at the Universities of Huddersfield and Liverpool, urged Welsh policy-makers to learn from previous experiences of voting age reform in 1969 (when the voting age was lowered to 18 in the UK) and the recent introduction of ‘Votes at 16’ in Scotland. He argued research indicated that although a majority of young people in Wales supported voting age reform, those who least politically-engaged were sceptical and considerably less-likely to vote when enfranchised.
The second presentation was provided by Megan Williams of the Assembly Commission who outlined research carried out in partnership with Electoral Reform Society Cymru indicated that young people’s lack of knowledge about Welsh politics may prevent them voting. She identified a range of new educational resources to be used in schools, colleges and youth groups to prepare young people to vote at 16. The final presentation was from Adam Blunt from Beaufort Research who presented findings from a project that had been commissioned by the Welsh Government to explore how to engage newly enfranchised young people and those who are currently enfranchised but disengaged from the political process. He noted the need to improve young people’s understanding of the processes through which they can effect change.
The morning session concluded with a speech from Julie James AM, Minister for Housing and Local Government who noted the important contribution of young people in Wales, citing the impact of the new Welsh Youth Parliament and youth-led climate strikes. She noted that the introduction of ‘Votes at 16’ would encourage politicians to engage with the issues young people care about.
A number of workshops were held throughout the event in which participants were encouraged to engage with the research findings and discuss the specific policy challenges linked to youth democratic education and participation. Young people led these sessions, focusing on three main issues; increasing democratic education provision in schools and colleges, reforming Welsh political culture, and peer-led approaches to youth political participation.
The afternoon session began with a discussion on the challenges and opportunities of voting age reform in Wales with a panel of experts including Professor Laura McAllister (Cardiff University), who chaired the 2017 expert panel on Assembly reform, Director of the Electoral Reform Society Cymru Jess Blair, Cardiff City Councillor Ashley Lister, and youth campaigner Bethany Roberts from Pembrokeshire Democracy Champions. The discussion was chaired by Dr Andy Mycock from the University of Huddersfield and covered a wide range of topics including the need to increase the profile of Welsh political institutions, the under-representation of BAME groups in the Senedd, and the role political parties can play in amplifying the voices of young people in Wales.
The findings from the event will be analysed and a report submitted to stakeholders and young people across Wales and the rest of the UK. We would like to thank everyone who attended on the day, the Llywydd Elin Jones AM and Julie James AM for finding the time to speak at the event. As we move to the implementation stage of voting age reform in Wales, the contributions from this event will be invaluable for informing policy interventions and programmes to ensure that we take advantage of the opportunity that ‘Votes-at-16’ presents to engage young people in Welsh politics.
Dr Tom Loughran, University of Huddersfield (On Behalf of Leverhulme Trust Lowering the Voting Age in the UK project, Electoral Reform Society Cymru and the Welsh Government).