John Curtice: What's the point of giving 16-year-olds the vote?

There is nothing new in young people not voting; fortunately, they do not remain young for ever

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Once upon a time, politicians used to spend election campaigns trying to persuade voters to vote for themselves rather than their opponent. Nowadays their task is very different. They have to try to persuade us that it is worth voting for anyone. Over the past seven years turnout has plummeted, and no one can be confident that more than one in three of us will bother to cast a ballot in next month's European and local elections.

Once upon a time, politicians used to spend election campaigns trying to persuade voters to vote for themselves rather than their opponent. Nowadays their task is very different. They have to try to persuade us that it is worth voting for anyone. Over the past seven years turnout has plummeted, and no one can be confident that more than one in three of us will bother to cast a ballot in next month's European and local elections.

Low turnouts worry politicians deeply. If they lose to their opponent but plenty of people have voted, then at least they have the satisfaction that voters thought they were worth voting against. But if few bother to vote at all even that satisfaction is denied. More importantly, the victorious politician's crucial claims, such as having a "mandate" to govern or to represent "the voice of the people", begin to sound very hollow when voiced against row upon row of empty ballot boxes. Even worse, people may even come to feel they are entitled to ignore what the government or parliament says if few have bothered to vote for them.

Little wonder then that our politicians have been searching high and low for ways of encouraging more people to vote. In local elections they have experimented with all kinds of electronic voting. So far this seems to have done little to dispel apathy. More successful has been old-fashioned snail mail. Getting everyone to vote by post seems able to increase the dismal turnouts otherwise recorded in local elections by about 15 per cent. Indeed, that is why the government has insisted that the 10 June elections should be conducted by post in four regions of England, including throughout Labour's northern heartlands.

But changing the way we vote is perhaps no more than applying a sticking plaster. It does nothing to reverse the underlying causes of ever-growing disaffection and disinterest. In particular, it would seem to do little to reverse the apparently ever-growing cancer of apathy that has emerged among younger voters, probably less than two in five of whom voted in 2001. There is, it appears, a danger that we are raising a generation for whom abstention is the norm rather than the exception.

How might we solve this more fundamental problem? Perhaps if we can catch people early enough and give them the chance to vote before apathy sets in, then may be they will pick up the voting habit for life. How about, then, reducing the voting age to 16?

For a Prime Minister who might like to revive his "Cool Britannia" image this idea probably has some superficial attractions. But if the Prime Minister, along with his fellow politicians, really wants to increase turnout he should pause for thought. For of the things that politicians can actually do to raise or lower turnout, this is one of the few that could be guaranteed to exacerbate their collective plight.

There is nothing new about young people not voting. They have always been less likely to vote than their elders. Fortunately they do not remain young for ever. Life with a mortgage and a marriage (or at least a long-term relationship) is a little less carefree and politics comes to matter more. As people enter their twenties and thirties more of them express an interest in politics and so make the journey to the polling station.

And what is true of adults is also true of teenagers. Rare indeed is the 12-year-old who evinces an interest in politics. At least by the time they are 18 some have caught the bug. So in giving 16 and 17-year-olds the chance to vote we will simply be extending the franchise to a group in which the majority will have even less interest in politics and voting than 18 and 19-year-olds.

Proponents of lowering the voting age argue that the change would help to stimulate teenagers' interest in politics. But if that were the case why does reaching voting age apparently have so little effect on 18-year-olds at present? Harold Wilson's decision in the 1960s to lower the voting age from 21 to 18 simply helped create the large pool of disinterested young voters that politicians currently bewail. It is difficult to see why history would not repeat itself.

More subtle is an argument based on the observation that those who do vote when they first get the chance to do so are more likely to vote in subsequent elections. So, it is claimed, if we can catch people earlier we are more likely to create voters for life.

But, alas, people do not suddenly acquire an interest in politics and voting simply because they have been to a polling station when they are 18. Rather, they go to the polling station at age 18 because they are already one of those rare teenagers who has developed an interest in politics.

Of course if we want younger people to vote, then their interest needs to be stimulated. But giving them the chance to record their first abstention at an even earlier age than now will not do the trick. Rather, they, like the rest of us, need to be convinced that voting will make a difference.

The writer is Professor of Politics, Strathclyde University

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