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Lowering the voting age: Enshrining rights without responsibilities

Should 16-year-olds be given the vote?

I’m bringing this up because people in the United Kingdom are seriously considering this for the second time in a year. 16-year-olds voted in the Scottish independence referendum last September. In the upcoming European Union membership referendum, three of the four largest parties are now calling for the same, raising the question of whether the U.K. is tilting closer and closer to formalizing the youth vote. If Americans will play up our links to the U.K., then we have to ask: If it can happen in the U.K., can it also happen here?

I don’t think giving the vote to 16-year-olds is a good thing, and many readers will likely agree. But the fact that many reasonable people in the U.K. support lowering the voting age should give us pause. The U.K.’s lessons aren’t always applicable to the United States, but in this case, the arguments and principles are largely the same.

First, a little bit of context. What makes a referendum fundamentally different from a normal election? Historically, referendums in the U.K. have been very rare and almost exclusively restricted to core principles of devolution and national sovereignty — constitutional questions of the highest order. The pro-youth vote argument in the U.K. is that since young people have a particularly high stake in these long-term matters, they should have the right to vote on them. But that argument doesn’t hold water, because if a 16-year-old can vote on matters as important as E.U. membership, why shouldn’t they be allowed to vote in general elections? Take it from the people who know the matter best: The most ardent supporters of the referendum youth vote — the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Nationalists — are the biggest champions of youth voting in general. And of course, they’d likely get an outsize share of the age 16-17 vote.

Are we supposed to be happy that lowering the voting age is not a question of principle but a political football? As with many constitutional norms, perhaps that was always the case. In the long run, giving the vote to 16-year-olds opens a larger can of worms that Parliament may end up wishing it hadn’t considered.

Granting a voting age of 16 on the E.U. referendum will only serve to further entrench the notion that 16-year-olds should vote on all referenda, and perhaps eventually all U.K. matters, including general elections. Make exceptions for 16-year-olds often enough, and the exception will become the expectation, in which case old principles won’t matter — the present-day politics will. And over time, expectations become principles.

Since the U.K. referendum voting age will likely be lowered to 16 in any case, we should look at the age question from a big-picture angle. Let’s not ask why the voting age is 16 for referenda; let’s ask why it’s 18 for everything else. Where do we make the critical differentiation between “hasn’t earned the vote” and “disenfranchised?” I’m going to explore two important arguments: voter maturity and the rights and responsibilities of citizens.

The first principle of a uniform voting age is maturity. By general consensus, children aren’t mature enough to vote, but when do people get to use that right? It’s hard to tell whether one person is more “mature” than the other — we all mature at different paces, mentally, emotionally and culturally. But intuitively, it’s impossible for the government to evaluate every citizen’s common sense.

As such, age-based benchmarks may not be perfect, but if we will use them, 18 is a reasonable number. That doesn’t mean that it is the best. It doesn’t actually resolve the question of when somebody has the ability to make a sound decision; certainly in the U.K., the pro-16 lobby would argue that 16-year-olds are mature enough to vote. To be clear, maybe that’s just political posturing; it’s hard to imagine, for example, that the Liberal Democrats would be so firmly behind expanding the youth vote if they hadn’t historically gotten a big chunk of it. But they wouldn’t be able to get away with that posturing unless there was enough popular sentiment behind the idea in the first place.

The other principle is responsibility. As a general principle, most laws begin treating people more harshly once they turn 18. Consequently, people also get the vote when they reach that age. In other words, America is a democracy, and in a democracy, responsibilities in society ought to go hand in hand with the amount of say you have in that society. This is the core principle behind what I’ll call the “military argument”: the claim that if somebody is old enough to die for their country, they’re old enough to vote. In that regard, it would be fine to lower the voting age to 16, as long as we also treat 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in other areas as well — running for office (the California Assembly permits 18-year-olds to run for office), going to jail, joining the military. Obviously I’m cherry-picking examples here. But these examples are significant enough that they don’t constitute a straw man. Put simply, being an adult is fundamentally different from being a minor, and there are clear rights and responsibilities associated with being an adult. If you change the rights, then you have to change the responsibilities as well.

If Americans want to lower the voting age, we can’t do that by snapping our fingers. We would have to change how other elements of government interact with our people. It would require a fundamental shift in our views of adulthood. For an example of how difficult that task can be, just look across the Atlantic.

Contact Winston Shi at wshi94 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Winston Shi

Winston Shi

Winston Shi was the Managing Editor of Opinions for Volume 245 (February-June 2014). He also served as an opinions and sports columnist, a senior staff writer, and a member of the Editorial Board. A native of Thousand Oaks, California (the one place on the planet with better weather than Stanford), he graduated from Stanford in June 2016 with bachelor's and master's degrees in history. He is currently attending law school, where he preaches the greatness of Stanford football to anybody who will listen, and other people who won't.