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.

Research Aims and Objectives

The proposed research project aims to enhance significantly the scale and scope of political and public deliberation by providing the most solid evidence base yet available on the vital issues of the appropriate age of enfranchisement and its potential impact upon youth citizenship. Four key research questions will define and underpin the research aims of the study:

  • How similar and relevant to contemporary analyses on youth citizenship were debates on the age of franchise when the UK became lowered the voting age to 18 in 1969?
  • What has been the impact of lowering of the voting age to 16 in those countries where this has occurred – and what lessons can be drawn?
  • How do political parties and pressure groups understand the relationship between the age of franchise, levels of youth political engagement and participation, and how the rights and responsibilities of youth and adult citizenship are understood and framed?
  • What is the extent and depth of support for lowering the voting age amongst future and current electors and how do they understand its potential implications for youth citizenship?

In addressing each of the above questions, the project will fulfil the following research objectives:

  • Analyse the content and significance of historical debates over voting age and youth citizenship in the UK, most notably during and after the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 in 1969
  • Examine the international context to the debate on lowering the voting age via comparative analysis of its impact where this has been implemented.
  • Assess the current arguments by political parties and pressure groups in the UK supporting or opposing lowering the voting age from 18 to 16 in terms of its perceived impact upon youth political engagement and youth citizenship.
  • Provide a detailed analysis of attitudes for and against lowering the voting age amongst 16-17 year olds and the current (18+) electorate, and how they correlate to the framing of youth and adult citizenship.

Research Methodologies

The project will undertake a mixed-methods approach embracing qualitative and quantitative research methodologies, guided by the framework, research questions and objectives outlined above. The project will undertake a comprehensive literature review to provide the first holistic analysis of historical and contemporary debates about the voting age, youth political participation, and shifting geometries of youth citizenship. Beginning with the decision to lower enfranchisement to 18 in 1969 and continuing to the present, it will explore the thematic and structural development of political and public debate through archival research of parliamentary, party political, and media sources, and of existing academic research and election surveys. The research will offer detailed textual analysis of the discourses, oral and written, articulated by proponents and opponents of voting age reform regarding broader impacts upon citizenship and political engagement. The project will also undertake a comprehensive comparative analysis of international evidence concerning voting age reform and its effects upon youth political engagement and citizenship more widely.

The project will work with enfranchised and non-enfranchised citizens (and in the Scottish case, partially enfranchised citizens) to enhance knowledge of public opinion on the issue of the voting age within the broader contexts of disaffection with, or participation in, existing forms of politics and how youth and adult citizenship are conceived. Using representative sampling, the project will assess opinion amongst 16 and 17 year olds on voting age reform, perceived broader impacts and reasons for support or opposition. The project will also assess the views of the 18+ electorate, via representative survey work, assessing the extent of support to preserve the status quo and what is the strength and depth, rather than mere extent, of opposition to change, and its political logic. It will assess the views of both sample groups on how they conceive youth and adult citizenship in terms of the relationship between the age of enfranchisement and the age of responsibility across a range of political, social, and economic areas. This quantitative analysis of attitudes will include working with a selected survey research firm to produce an online survey of a representative sample of 1,000 16-17 year olds, drawn from a clustered hierarchical sampling design (region; local authority; ward) using Postcode Address Files as the sampling frame and an online survey of a minimum of 1,000 18+ existing voters, using a similar sampling design to that for 16-17 year olds, measuring attitudinal direction, intensity of feeling and issue salience.

This will be accompanied by in-depth exploration of the opinions of each age bracket via extensive qualitative research to assess the sources of alienation and non-engagement, in order to assess whether, and how far, lowering the voting age might better connect young people to democratic politics, improve the political system, and correlate the age of enfranchisement with the framing of youth and adult citizenship. This section of the research will examine the views of young people on the degree to which political literacy is held by themselves and their peers and whether or not a reduction in the voting age will contribute positively to the development of that literacy. The qualitative analysis will include i) eight in-depth focus group discussions, each comprising ten 16-17 year olds, on the potential impact of franchise age change and where it stands in importance relative to other measures. These focus groups will be assembled on a representative basis, using our chosen survey research organisation and will be drawn from all countries in the UK: 4 from England 2 from Scotland and 1 each from Wales and Northern Ireland ii) a minimum of 45 semi-structured interviews with stakeholders and interested parties, ascertaining the perspectives, in the UK, from relevant UK and devolved national government ministers and Shadow ministers, MPs and members of pressure groups. We anticipate that at least one-third of these interviews will be based in Scotland, to analyse the experience of ‘votes-at-16’ thus far, introduced for Scottish Parliament and local council elections, in addition to the 2014 independence referendum, but also to consider the views of young people on the variability of the voting age there, according to type of election.


The research will yield a very significant range of outputs. It will involve considerable engagement with interested parties and the media (for details, see the Pathways to Impact template). In respect of academic outputs, the project will yield a joint-authored book, Too Much Too Young? Youth Citizenship and Political Engagement in the UK, and four refereed journal articles.

Findings from the research project will be disseminated at two academic one-day conferences to be held in 2019 and via a series of research briefings to the UK and devolved national governments. Evidence from the project will be submitted to relevant parliamentary committees at Westminster and those of the devolved nations as well as a wide range of stakeholders. We will also develop a series of outputs to engage with policy-makers in the European Union and United Nations, submitting key summaries of the quantitative and qualitative research findings. The project will also engage with young people in education through the development of a series of educational events and resources. A summary of research findings will be published in conjunction with the Political Studies Association of the UK to broaden their reach.