The recent move by the Welsh Assembly to extend the franchise (for elections other than UK General Elections) to 16 year olds, has once again thrust the issue of the minimum voting age into the spotlight. Scotland has already passed similar legislation and the three largest opposition parties at Westminster (plus the Greens) officially support a reduction in the minimum voting age (as do Ruth Davidson and Sarah Wollaston for the Conservatives). The ex-Chancellor, George Osborne, has also urged his erstwhile party to follow suit from the safety of his editor’s desk.
To borrow a phrase from Lewis Carroll’s Alice, there is no ‘nice knock-down argument’ for why the voting age should be 18. But equally, and for the same reason, there are no compelling arguments why it should be lowered to 16. The basic reason for this is that the decision about the age at which citizens can vote (and even which citizens can vote) is a compromise.
Whose Justice? Which Rationality?
This is the question that the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre used as the title of the second volume of his After Virtue ‘trilogy’. He argues that there are a number of different and incompatible accounts of practical reasoning or rationality (he compares, in particular, the different conceptual schemata of Aristotle and David Hume) which affect the way we understand society and therefore ethics and law. If we are to have any hope of agreeing about voting age (for example), then we must to some extent to be able to share an understanding of democracy, and the rights and responsibilities implied in the act of voting. Like Thomas Aquinas (the 13th century friar, a Christian philosopher in the school of Aristotle), we must first ask, “What is it?”
This seems like a childishly simple question, and in some ways it is. But if we are unable to agree upon this, then all subsequent argument will be at cross purposes. To understand anything, to judge anything, we must first know what it is, and what it is for. If I buy a microwave and complain that it’s useless because it doesn’t receive SkySports or connect to my WiFi network, then my complaint can be dismissed. Not dismissed as false (it remains true that I can’t watch SkySports on it, nor connect to Wifi), but as a category mistake. In other words, I have failed to understand what a microwave is, and therefore I am in no position to judge whether it is good or bad.
Therefore, where decisions about democracy and participation in that democracy are concerned, we need to think first about what it is. The OED defines democracy as: A system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.
As this post is about voting age, I’d like to simply accept this definition for now and move on to the crucial component within it, namely “the eligible members of a state.” Who is ‘eligible’ and who decides the criterion/criteria for eligibility? Whose justice, which rationality?
Anyone talking about democracy is likely to mention the Ancient Greeks, or Athens. But we must surely recognise that every ‘democracy’ has been (or is) somewhere on a continuum between pure democracy and anarchy/tyranny. Athenian democracy was not ‘pure’ by 21st century standards. Women had no vote, neither did slaves. Only male citizens over the age of 18 were able to vote, and let us remember that 2500 years ago 18 year olds would have been regarded as far further into their ‘adulthood’ than nowadays.
The truth is that all democratic franchises are to some extent limited. In the UK, peers of the realm, prisoners, some of those detained under the Mental Health Act, and British citizens (without a UK address) who have lived abroad for 15+ years are not allowed to vote. We have, I would say, a pretty broad franchise, embracing as it does UK resident citizens of Cyprus, Malta and the Republic of Ireland.
This year’s anniversary of the granting of the (universal) vote to women has somewhat overshadowed the story of male suffrage, probably quite rightly. The standard way to talk about sex equality is to talk of “equal” this or that. However, whilst (some) women got the vote in 1918, “equal voting rights” only came in in 1928.
The question is, then, upon what principle is the franchise is based? Is it adulthood, or perhaps contribution to the economy through tax (no taxation without representation), or maturity, or simply participation (a somewhat tautological idea, but essentially that the franchise extends to those who are enfranchised by it)?
I shall concentrate on this issue because it is the one most often employed by those who campaign to lower the voting age. Tax is an unhelpful measure because some very young children (child film stars, for example) might be liable for income tax (though not N.I.), and all children pay tax (VAT) whenever they buy chocolate. People on very low incomes might pay very little in the way of direct taxes. But most of the arguments in favour of votes at 16 (or even 12, as I discovered on Twitter today) hinge upon maturity or ‘adulthood’.
The standard argument seems to go: 16 year olds are able to marry, have sex, serve in the armed forces; therefore they are adults, therefore they should be able to vote.
However, before I consider this argument, I need to say a word about:
Surely not allowing 16 year olds to vote is ‘ageism’? Well, maybe it is. It depends where we start from. But this has become a significant issue since the EU Referendum where, even over a year later, one regularly sees Tweets suggesting that the ‘elderly’ should not have been allowed to vote because it was not a decision about ‘their’ future. There have been serious suggestions about weighting different votes according to age, and about the ‘stake’ that particular age groups have when it comes to votes.
I refer you back to what I said above — the decision about the age at which citizens can vote is a compromise.
There is no realistically workable method of assigning different ‘weights’ to votes. Some have apparently suggested that the votes of, say, 70 year olds, should count for less than those of 20 year olds. Yet, many 70 year olds could live for another 30 years. Some 20 year olds, alas, might be dead within the decade, or even the year. Some 20 year olds are foolish and economically unproductive, whereas some 70 year olds are wise and still running successful businesses.
What is more insidious is the implication that older people are likely to vote selfishly. Why should this be the case? Why are we not concerned about young(er) people voting selfishly in a way that would comparatively disadvantage older people?
This is why the pre-1928 franchise was not as horrific as we might suppose nowadays. Today, we might see it as a disgusting example of a society in which men, but not women, were trusted to choose a government. And yet, just after the First World War most people, including most women, would have regarded it as perfectly just and natural that the householder and head of a family would have cast a vote on behalf of his family.
It is a reasonable assumption, now as then, that parents vote according not only to their own interests, but those of their children. Similarly, are not the elderly likely to weigh the needs of their children and grandchildren when making their decision about for whom to vote? Very few people vote out of naked self-interest (though we tend to assume that those who vote for the ‘other party’ are motivated by self-interest, quite unlike ourselves).
Which leads me on to what I consider to be the major issue here — that of the demarcation between childhood and adulthood.
‘Grown Ups’ Get Votes
We all know people to whom we’d rather not extend the vote. But as a society we have agreed (thus far) that those aged 18 years and above get that right. This requires humility. This means that when you have a conversation with a mate in the pub and he’s not sure who the Prime Minister is, you accept that in the next General Election his vote is worth the same as yours.
The age of 18 is determined in law to be the age of reasonable adulthood, but it would be a nonsense to suppose that some magical transformation from political ignoramus to sagacious citizen happens on one’s eighteenth birthday. Choosing the commencement of the 19th year is a compromise. In other words, there are no good reasons to set the age higher; but nor are there reasonable arguments to set the age lower.
There are adults with mental disabilities who have the right to vote, even though they might have a ‘mental age’ of well below 18, or even 8. Equally, there are adults who take less care over their electoral decision making than would many 12 year olds. They vote for reasons that are irrational, ignorant or simply whimsical. Unless you are going to introduce some sort of citizenship exam, then the accepted beginning of adulthood will always be, not exactly arbitrary, but a compromise.
18 = Adult?
The voting age was set at 18 in 1969. I’m in my mid (okay, now late) 40s, which means that my parents first got to vote after they were already married and in their early 20s. Also, I was perhaps one of the last generation that celebrated a 21st birthday party as ‘the big one’. I turned 21 in 1993 and even then it was only anal intercourse with another man, eligibility for an HGV licence and standing for parliament that became legal upon this milestone. As it happened, none of those rights of passage (no pun intended) held much appeal.
When does adulthood begin nowadays? It’s an important question, because those in favour of reducing the voting age rely upon it. Those who argue for the voting age to be reduced to 16 are likely to list the ‘adult’ activities which are open to 16 year olds. Their implied argument is essentially that because a 16 year old can engage in X, and X is an ‘adult activity’, then the adult activity of voting ought to be something in which they can engage too. Closely related to this argument is another which suggests that because voting is an ‘adult activity’, then extending it to 16 year olds will encourage them to become more politically engaged and mature. In other words, being given the vote will make young voters ‘more adult’.
In both cases, the argument to reduce (or maintain) the voting age hinges upon an understanding of ‘adulthood’. I have heard no mainstream argument for an age reduction that says, in effect, “Okay, sixteen year old are clearly children, but we must extend the franchise to children, because x, y, z.” There is a good reason for the absence of such arguments and it is that, once accepted, there could be no convincing argument for any lower limit, at all. In other words, if a child of 16 should be able to vote, why should a child of 14 not?
Thus the choice is about letting children vote, or redefining adulthood. Both are rent with problems. If we allow children to vote, then where do we set the lower limit? Sixteen? Fourteen? Twelve? Abolish the lower limit altogether?
As I observed above, a human being does not suddenly become an adult at the stroke of midnight as their 18th birthday begins. The maturing of an individual, from childhood to adulthood, is a gradual process which begins at birth. It also, let us remember, continues beyond that 18th birthday — some adults are more ‘adult’ than others. Plenty of teenagers behave more responsibly than their parents (like Saffy in Absolutely Fabulous).
At the age of five, we generally agree that children are old enough to go to school all day. They are also legally allowed to consume alcohol in moderate quantities at home, even though they will not be allowed to consume it in licensed premises for another 11 years, or buy it for another 13. Later on, the physical changes of puberty will see girls (usually) progress into adulthood somewhat before boys. Most human beings will be biologically sexually mature before they are 16, but certainly not emotionally sexually mature, which is why the minimum age of consent is sixteen and unlikely to be lowered.
At the age of 14, there are a few ‘tasters’ of adulthood, such as being able to earn money in a part-time job. Full-time work isn’t permitted until 16, though, and even then not in a pub, betting shop or on a battlefield. In both cases it is clear that the new ‘freedoms’ are limited freedoms. Almost adults, but not quite, because teenagers are navigating the rather difficult business of becoming adults.
It is at the age of 18 that a person can assume an adult role in society, without qualification. An 18 year old can get married, write a will, buy booze and fags, and stand for election. It does not follow that they will do any of those things, or even that they should, but the crucial point is that they can, by right. And voting is of course both a right and a responsibility. At the age of 18, you get to participate in the choice of who governs the state, but you are also required to do what the state asks of you. You can be asked to serve on a jury, and if you commit a crime, you will be tried as an adult. You can no longer hide behind your parents. You must step up and take full responsibility — sexually, financially, emotionally, legally and civically.
Thus, to repeat: if 16 year olds are to be allowed to vote, then two options are possible. Either we must regard 16 at the age at which adulthood (and therefore its responsibilities) is reached, or else grant that children have the right to vote. If we choose the latter justification, then there is no good reason to set the voting age at 16, because 14 year olds are children too, as are 9 year olds and even toddlers. But the former argument — treating 16 year olds as adults — is at once the more tempting and the more dangerous.
The law is (or rather individual laws are) a contradictory mess when it comes to ‘adult’ rights and responsibilities. It may seem like a nonsense that a 16 year old might be married, and a parent, working full-time, and yet not be able to vote. On the other hand, the number of 16 year olds in this situation is vanishingly small. And whilst a 16 year old girl can legally have sex with her 16 year old boyfriend, if she sends him a naked selfie, then both have committed a crime because that selfie would technically be ‘an indecent image of a child’. As with many rules, setting the age of consent at 16 is a compromise. Not making criminals of 16 year olds who have sex is not the same thing as encouraging them. So although they can get married, they still need parental permission, and while they can legally have sex, they cannot buy pornography, nor can they buy alcohol to ‘get in the mood’, and if they wish to enjoy a post-coital cigarette then they will need to ask an adult to buy them. It follows, then, that in the view of society, copulating 16 year olds are not adults, but children legally permitted to have sex.
And even the age of consent is contingent. A 16 or 17 year old cannot have sex with someone older than 18 who is in a position of trust (a teacher, for example). In other words, while we recognise the qualified sexual maturity of 16 year olds in law, we still regard them as being in need of protection, and rightly so. Permitting something is not approving of it. Few people would regard adultery, promiscuity, self-harm or suicide as positive behaviour, yet we tend to agree that to make any of them illegal would only create criminals unnecessarily.
The current argument for votes at 16 turns on their supposed ‘adulthood’ — the fact that they can get married, pay tax, work, have sex, and so forth. Treating 16 year olds (or, worse, even younger children) unconditionally as adults will make it far harder to argue that young people need protection. The right to vote is an important one, but so is the right to be protected from harm. The average British citizen will enjoy, if that is the word, around 60 years of voting. Someone born in 1940 has been able to vote in three referendums and 20 elections (somewhat more if they live in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland). There will be time enough to vote, but more important is the freedom to be a teenager, because simply making it through one’s teenage years is testing enough.
The title of this article will serve as my conclusion. It’s from a line of a poem by Ausonius (not Virgil as people once believed) and you might recognise it from a similar poem by Robert Herrick:
Collige, virgo, rosas, dum flos novus et nova pubes, / et memor esto aevum sic properare tuum.
Maidens, gather roses, while blooms are fresh and youth is fresh, / and be mindful that your life-time hastes away.
Life has a habit of ‘hastening away’. Politicians with an eye on electoral prizes should not hasten it further.