Parliament today voted against giving 16 and 17 year olds a vote in the EU referendum.
Those in favour of reducing the voting age can often be heard saying “it’s their future” and “16 year olds can get married, join the army and have kids so why shouldn’t they be able to vote?”
Neither of these arguments is particularly strong. First, well it is their future… but it’s also my son’s future – he’s five, should he have a vote? Clearly not since he just about understands that he was born in London let alone that London is the capital of a country called the UK, which is a member of an international organisation called the EU.
So, what does my five year old son teach us? He teaches us that there has to be a cut off. There will be some children his age who understand that the UK is a country and London is its capital just as there are some 16 year olds who understand what the EU is and are capable of making a mature decision about the UK’s future. But, we all know that there are 16 year olds who have no business exercising any sort of important right that can affect society as a whole.
What then of the suggestion that 16 year old’s can marry, have kids and join the army? Let me begin by questioning the entire premise of the argument – what do marrying, reproducing and joining the army have to do with being able to vote? In what way is a boy’s ability to convince a girl to sleep with him relevant to making an informed decision about the UK’s future in Europe? How does deciding you’ve met the love of your life qualify you to make big decisions about the country? Equating these things with voting is simply not a valid argument.
While I don’t for a moment accept that these things are equivalent to voting why do those making the argument pick on those examples but ignore others? It’s not so long ago that smoking was a hobby for those aged 16 and up, but nobody complained that 16 year olds can have babies but not smoke when the smoking age was raised to 18. Also, why are those arguing that joining the army means a 16 year old should vote not complaining that these kids can choose to lay down their life for the country but not take a tot of rum when they join the Navy? How is it that nobody is making the case for 16 year olds to be allowed to drive a car (current age 17) or an HGV (current age 18 if you complete a course in addition to passing your car licence).
Clearly there are plenty of things you can’t do at 16 so let’s not pretend that because you can make some adult decisions you should be allowed to make all adult decisions.
On a more important point, should we be letting 16 year olds join the military? We regularly criticise tin-pot dictators abroad for using child soldiers yet we ignore our own recruitment of children into the military, no doubt consoling ourselves with the fact that we don’t deploy kids until they hit 18 years of age, which does somewhat undermine the argument that we should let kids vote if they can join up.
If we were to reduce the voting age – not just for EU referendums but for all elections – to 16 then how long will we have to wait until 15 year olds demand the vote? Will we give it to them? What about the 14 year olds?
I think two things are obvious: there has to be a cut off age for elections and there will never be a perfect age before which everybody is too immature to vote and after everybody is a wise soothsayer.
Unless we are going to introduce exams to assess a person’s ability to vote, 18 strikes me as a good age to choose.