Votes at 16: Key issues for the 2015 Parliament

In 2014, 16 and 17-year-olds were able to vote in the Scottish independence referendum. The change to the franchise was only temporary but it re-ignited the debate about lowering the voting age in UK elections.

Who supports it?

The Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party all support reducing the voting age to 16.

The Liberal Democrats have had a commitment to lower the voting age in their general election manifestos since 2001 but there was no such commitment in the Coalition Agreement published by the previous Government in May 2010, and historically the Conservative Party has generally opposed lowering the voting age.

The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee's report on voter engagement, published in November 2014, called on the Government to lead a national discussion on reducing the voting age and to allow the House of Commons a free vote on the issue.

Will it need legislation?

The franchise for elections in the United Kingdom is set out in the Representation of the People Act 1983, as amended, and to vote in any election a person must be aged 18 or over.

Section 1 of the Act sets out the franchise for Parliamentary elections and Section 2 for local elections; the age requirement is the same in both cases. The requirement is therefore set out in primary legislation and it would require primary legislation to change this.

The Scottish Parliament was able to legislate to reduce the voting age for the referendum on independence because the Section 30 Order, the Scotland Act 1998 (Modification of Schedule 5) Order 2013, enabled it to legislate for the referendum, and that legislation set out the specific franchise for the referendum.

The change in the franchise was therefore only applicable to that referendum. However, Scotland has now been given the power to legislate to include 16 and 17-year-olds in the franchise for the next Scottish Parliament elections in 2016.

What are the arguments?

Those who are not convinced of the need to reduce the voting age argue that 16 and 17-year-olds are not politically aware, mature or independent enough to make an informed electoral choice.

Some also point to the potential for low turnout among 16 and 17-year-olds, and argue that increasing turnout and registration among 18-24 year-olds is a more important priority.

Those who support the extension of the franchise contend that citizenship education has made 16 and 17-year-olds more politically aware; that voting at a younger age can create a basis for political engagement later in life; and that there is an inconsistency between denying 16 and 17-year-olds a vote, but legally allowing them to take on other responsible social roles and duties.

How many 16 and 17-year-olds are there in the UK?

There are over 1.5 million 16 and 17-year-olds in the United Kingdom, representing around 2.4% of the total population (see Table in margin). If the voting age were reduced to 16, the voting-age population would rise by around 3%.

Across the UK, the figure varies: in Birmingham, Hodge Hill, the voting-age population would increase by around 5%; in the Cities of London and Westminster, it would increase by just 1.3%.

What would be the impact on turnout?

Turnout tends to increase with age, with the lowest turnout among younger age groups. In the 2010 General Election, 18 to 21-year-olds had a turnout rate of around 40%, around half that of those aged over 65.

Similarly, those aged 18–25 were less likely than other age groups to say that they planned to vote in the 2015 General Election. Assuming turnout among 16 and 17-year-olds was similar to that of 18 to 21-year-olds, lowering the voting age would marginally reduce the rate of turnout among the whole electorate.

Party Lines

  • Greens: lower the voting age to 16
  • Labour: give 16 and 17-year-olds the vote by May 2016
  • Liberal Democrats: introduce votes at 16 across the UK for elections and referendums

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The Key Issues articles were published in May 2015. However, the Commons Library produces new briefings as topics evolve.

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