The Representation of the People (Young People’s Enfranchisement) Bill [HL] is a private member’s bill sponsored by Lord Adonis (Labour). The bill was introduced in the House of Lords on 10 June 2021. Its second reading debate is scheduled for 28 January 2022.

What is the current voting age in the UK?

At UK parliamentary elections, persons must be 18 years of age on polling day to vote.

For local government elections and devolved elections in England and Northern Ireland, the voting age is 18 years. Voting age is a devolved power in Scotland and Wales, but not in Northern Ireland. Scotland and Wales have both passed legislation to lower the voting age for local government elections and devolved elections to 16 years.

The voting age in Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) elections in England and Wales is a reserved matter, remaining at 18 years for both nations. No such elections take place in Scotland or Northern Ireland, as members are appointed to the Scottish Police Authority and the Northern Ireland Policing Board respectively.

The table below summarises the voting ages for different elections in different parts of the UK.

Voting ages for different elections in different parts of the UK
UK parliamentary elections Local government elections and devolved elections Police and Crime Commissioner elections
England 18 18 18
Scotland 18 16 N/A
Wales 18 16 18
Northern Ireland 18 18 N/A

 What would the bill do?

This bill would reduce the voting age to 16 for UK parliamentary elections and all local elections in England.

The bill contains one substantive clause that would amend the Representation of the People Act 1983 (the 1983 act). Section 1 of the 1983 act would be amended to reduce the voting age for parliamentary elections from 18 to 16. The bill would also amend section 2 of the 1983 act to lower the voting age for local government elections in England from 18 to 16.

The bill would extend to England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and come into force on the day it was passed.

Why has it been introduced?

Lord Adonis has been campaigning to reduce the minimum voting age from 18 years to 16 years for some time. In 2019, during a short debate in the House of Lords on a further referendum for Brexit, he said that voting in any referendum should be extended to 16 and 17 year-olds, “because there is no group whose future is more at stake”.

There have been several other calls for a reduction in the voting age from 18 to 16. These include the Votes at 16 campaign launched in 2003 by a coalition of political parties, pressure groups and charities. Campaigners stated that making 16 year-olds eligible to vote would have several positive effects, including:

  • engaging 16 and 17 year-olds at the ballot who hold many responsibilities in our society;
  • empowering 16 and 17 year-olds, through a democratic right, to influence decisions that will define their future; and
  • inspiring young people to get involved in our democracy.

In 2014, the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, a predecessor committee to Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, published the Voter Engagement in the UK report. In the report, the committee stated that it took no view on whether the vote should be extended. However, it recommended that Parliament should lead a national discussion on the matter, bring forward a motion, and allow the House of Commons a free vote on the issue.

The Government responded to the report in 2015, stating that “there is no consensus within the Coalition Government and consequently the Government has no plans to introduce a change in this Parliament”.

In 2019, the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Votes at 16 published a campaign report that highlighted evidence of support for votes at 16. This evidence included contributions from parliamentarians, academics, youth organisations, campaigners and think tanks. The APPG noted that statistics from YouGov over the years showed the public remained broadly opposed to extending the voting age to 16, but that research from academia suggested more support amongst the public.

In response to previous proposals to lower the voting age, opponents have questioned whether 16 and 17 year-olds should be trusted with the vote if they cannot be trusted with other rights, such as buying cigarettes, alcohol, and gambling which are reserved for those over 18.

How have similar bills progressed previously?

There has been much consideration of the voting age in both Houses of Parliament. In addition to the Voting Age (Reduction) Bill 2017–19, sponsored by Lord Adonis, several other bills were introduced to extend voting to 16 and 17 year-olds in some capacity during the 2017–19 parliamentary session. These included two notable private member’s bills in the House of Commons:

Both bills failed to receive a date for second reading before the end of the session. No bills progressed beyond the session.

What is the Government’s position on lowering the voting age?

The Government’s 2019 general election manifesto contained a commitment to maintain the voting age at 18, stating this was in line with the age of gaining full citizenship rights. This position was reiterated by the Minister of State at the Cabinet Office, Lord True, on 29 June 2020:

The Government was elected on a manifesto commitment to retain the current franchise at 18 and therefore has no plans to extend voting rights to 16 and 17 year olds in England.

The Government continues to believe that the voting age should remain aligned with the age of majority, at 18. This is the point at which many other key rights and obligations as a citizen are acquired and is in line with international comparators.

What could the impact be if 16 and 17 year-olds were eligible to vote?

Population estimates for 16 to 17 year-olds

The mid-2020 population estimates for the UK, England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimate that there were more than 1.46 million 16 and 17 year-olds in the UK in 2020 and1.24 million 16 and 17 year-olds in England (both figures representing 2.2% of their respective populations).

In 2017, the ONS published an article assessing the potential impact of lowering the UK voting age to 16 on the shape of the electorate for the 2017 general election. The ONS found that there were 88 constituencies where the number of 16 and 17 year-olds was greater than the winning margin for the 2017 general election. Although the ONS noted that these figures did not mean that the outcome would have changed, as it is not possible to predict voter turnout and preference, it still noted the potential impact the change might have.

Age-related voting behaviours and voting turnout

The British Election Study (BES) analysed data from the 2019 BES Post-Election Random Probability Survey for the 2019 general election. The analysis showed that “older people were much more likely to vote Conservative and younger people were much more likely to vote Labour”. Statistics from YouGov confirm this trend for the 2019 general election, revealing a ‘crossover’ from voting Labour to voting Conservative at 39 years old. Neither datasets include 16 to 17 year-olds, so it is unknown if they would follow this overall trend.

On voting turnout, a synthesis of polling data by the House of Commons Library suggests that younger age groups (18 to 24 year-olds, 25 to 34 year-olds) have been consistently less likely to vote than older groups across general elections. However, in a report on increasing political engagement published in 2006 by the Power Commission, it was argued that if 16 to 17 year-olds did follow this trend, decreased turnout should not be an “adequate reason to reject reform [on lowering the voting age]”.

A report on the Scottish Independence Referendum in 2014 by the Electoral Commission revealed that 16 and 17 year-olds were more likely to vote than 18 to 24 year-olds. The Electoral Commission stated that claimed turnout amongst 16 to 17 year-olds was 75%, significantly higher than amongst 18 to 24 year-olds (54%), though still lower than the overall turnout of 84.57%.

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Cover image by Element5 Digital from Unsplash.