Should 16-year-olds be able to vote?

Scotland's 16 and 17-year-olds will be casting their votes in a referendum on independence. Why not elsewhere?
Shawn Murphy | 2 November 2012
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Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond has unveiled a plan to extend voting rights to 16 and 17-year-olds at the country’s independence referendum in 2014, raising rumours that the move will become permanent and even spread to England.

The deal was struck as part of a number of terms set between the First Minister and England’s Prime Minister David Cameron regarding the referendum earlier this month.

To some the move appears like little more than a quick grab for young votes on the side of the reigning Scottish National Party (SNP) to bolster the independence movement. The logic seems flawless: teenagers are less likely to have an affinity for an ageing monarchy than their parents, so any votes that can be fleeced from them are going to push independence along.

It’s well known that the SNP needs the numbers with a recent major poll indicating just 30 percent of Scots want independence.

But 16 and 17-year-olds account for a small portion of the population, and when added to the voting population would not be all that much bigger, so chances are that their votes will be negligible. This should make the issue minor, but there’s a lot more to it.

Even though only 24 months separates 16-year-olds and 18 year-olds, age does not automatically translate into maturity. This is no doubt the case for many adults, who live extended childhoods free from the constraints of responsibility, but it is even more apparent in teenagers. One need only consult the nearest newspaper for the latest in teenage bashings and drunkenness.

In earlier times it was plain logic that the vote be only extended to those older than 21. The world was a very different place, demographically and politically speaking. Young men were hardened and had their priorities put in order when they spent time on the frontline. Couples were married young and took on real responsibilities earlier in life. People grew up a lot quicker back then than they do now.

There is also the question of the slippery-slope: If 16 year-olds aren’t that much different from 17 and 18 year-olds, what’s the significant difference between 15 and 16-year-olds? Age does not seem like the right criteria for granting voting rights.

A solution is offered by the Scottish Youth Parliament (SYP), a voluntary model parliament for teenagers and young adults that believes “it’s absolutely fundamental” for 16 and 17-year-olds to get the vote. The SYP points to the fact that Scottish teenagers are already given a number of entitlements and responsibilities and yet are denied an influence over how they are governed.

At present, 16 and 17-year-olds in Scotland are allowed to work, join the armed forces, marry and even pay taxes. Surprisingly, the old adage that says that if you pay taxes you should vote has been lost in the case of young Scots.

Arguably, allowing teenagers the vote encourages them in their civic duty. In many countries around the globe students join model United Nations councils or volunteer their time to the youth wing of a political party, so granting them the vote is just one step further in the maturing process for teenagers.

Tom Nash, Edinburgh University Student Association’s Welfare Officer, stated that it would be “exceedingly unfair to exclude thousands of young people from being involved and responsible in the debate and for their future.”

As they will be the generation that inherits the consequences of the decisions of their parents, 16 and 17-year-olds will want some say in their future, rather than be relegated to a mere appendage of their parents.

The late teens are that awkward part between adolescence and adulthood where young men and women begin to define their character. Obviously, there are many bumps and hitches along the road for some teenagers, but many are already exercising a great deal of ingenuity and self-awareness, so granting them the vote is simply a means of encouragement for them to become thoughtful and responsible citizens.

Shawn Murphy recently completed a journalism course at Monash University, in Melbourne. 

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