This project aims to provide a holistic research framework to consider the effects of lowering the voting age in terms of enhancing youth democratic participation and the attendant framing of rights and responsibilities of youth and adult citizenship. This is a strongly impact-oriented project that responds to the need to adopt an objective, evidence-based and deliberative approach cognisant of the strength, depth and rationale underpinning public opinion on these issues. It aims to offers a detailed analysis, historically, sociologically and politically-informed, in an area of obvious public policy importance by providing the first detailed study of the emergent ‘Politics of Enfranchisement’ across a devolved, multi-national UK state. The project thus has clear policy-making and public benefit, both informing and enriching the growing political debate surrounding the significance of ‘votes-at-16’.
Anxiety over claimed rising levels of political disengagement amongst young people from established means of representative politics has seen support intensify for lowering the voting age to 16 across the UK. Most political parties represented in the UK parliament now support of ’votes-at-16’, as do an increasing number of youth-focused and democratic reform-oriented non-governmental organisations. Thus far, no countervailing pressure group or coalition opposing a reduction in the voting age has emerged. However, the two parties at Westminster which oppose lowering the voting age, the Conservatives and Democratic Unionist Party, currently form a governing parliamentary alliance. Change in the voting age is not immediate but the debate will not disappear and analysis of the key arguments is vital.
Given that the parties supporting voting age reform appear those likeliest to benefit electorally from such a move, there may be an element of self-interest in their position. Indeed, age cohort proved arguably the most important demographic element of party choice at the 2017 General Election. Nevertheless, the case for lowering the voting age appears universalistic rather than particularistic, often being framed in terms of a broader democratic stimulus. This approach has encouraged a small but increasingly vocal number of Conservative MPs to publically express support for lowering the voting age.
The extension of the franchise to 16 and 17 year-olds in the UK was first undertaken in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, when 75 per cent exercised their new democratic right. The UK government subsequently empowered the Scottish Parliament to lower the voting age for its devolved elections. However Scottish 16 and 17 year olds, like their counterparts elsewhere the UK, remain unable to vote in Westminster elections. The potential for the introduction of ‘votes at 16’ elsewhere in the UK has also strengthened. The Wales Act 2017 devolves authority to the Welsh Assembly for lowering the voting age to 16 for local and sub-state national elections. Non-unionist elected representatives in the Northern Ireland Assembly have also expressed support for voting age reform. There is the possibility of a lowering of the voting age for city-region mayoral elections if such powers were transferred as an extension to existing devolution deals.
It is noteworthy however that the existing, very limited, survey work indicates a majority of currently enfranchised citizens across the entirety of the UK oppose a voting age reduction. Moreover, the introduction of ‘votes-at-16’ has been limited to a single set of Scottish Parliamentary and local elections, preceded by a somewhat reductive and binary referendum in Scotland. There is as such a lack of detailed research in how newly enfranchised Scottish 16-17 year-olds age have balanced electoral participation with engagement in Westminster-orientated democratic politics. Furthermore scant consideration appears to have been given to the possibility that a differentiated approach to lowering of the voting age across the UK might problematize how the political, economic and social rights and responsibilities of youth and adult citizenship are correlated and realized across an increasingly devolved and multi-layered state.