Nottingham Trent University students Mia Penny and Beckie Chaddock have been undertaking placements at the National Justice Museum. One of the stories the museum tells is the struggle for civil rights, including voting rights. This is just as important to the history and development of the legal system, and its relevance today, as the stories of crime and punishment we often showcase. At a time when the definition of ‘democracy’ is under discussion, and as the UK goes to the polls in the election, Mia and Beckie decided to focus on another proposed change in voting rights: the lowering of the voting age to 16. Here are their thoughts:
Should the Voting Age be Lowered?
From the Reform Act of 1832, which granted rich male landowners the vote for the first time, to The Equal Franchise Act 1928 which allowed women to vote at the age of 21 regardless of whether or not they owned property, the voting system in Britain has changed and reformed dramatically over the last 200 years. The Representation of the People Act in 1969 saw Harold Wilson drop the voting age from 21 to 18, and with the snap election in June fast approaching, we considered the significance of the age at which you are granted suffrage.
The move to reduce the voting age to sixteen was first put to vote in the House of Commons in 1999 by Simon Hughes, and the motion was defeated by a landslide majority of 434 to 36. However, campaigns such as the Votes at 16 Coalition have continued to fight for the reduction in the voting age since forming in 2003, and have gained support over the years from the Scottish National Party and the Labour Party, as well as from groups like the British Youth Council, the Children’s Rights Allowance for England and UNISON. A key argument proposed is that at sixteen you are able to join the armed forces, legally marry, leave home, pay tax, as well as it being the age of consent. In a PoliticsLab survey, one participant stated that “A sixteen year old can pay tax or be sent to fight for their country, but they are currently refused the right to vote for the politicians who can decide how to spend their taxes, or send them off to war.” A further point raised is that young people deserve the right to have a say in matters that directly affect their near future, such as the cost of university tuition fees. Though many people believe that young people have no interest in politics, there is evidence to suggest that in countries where the voting age was lowered to sixteen, for example in Austria in 2011, engagement in the governmental sphere increased in young voters.
However, political parties like the Conservatives believe that the voting age should remain at eighteen. The main argument against lowering the voting age is that sixteen year olds have little to no life experience to inform them at the ballot box. Just because they are legally entitled to do it does not by any means indicate that they have all got married and started paying into the system or joined the army at sixteen. In fact, the vast majority are still at school beginning their A Level studies. It has been suggested that they may be too easily swayed by false promises from politicians, or enticed into radical political parties, or perhaps that young voters will simply just vote for whoever their parents tell them to. The lowest turnout in voters is those in the 18-24 bracket, perhaps indicating a lack of interest in politics in that age range.
Though we believe that the argument for reducing the voting age is important and should still be explored and debated, we are both of the opinion that it should still remain at eighteen. From our own experience of becoming more aware of the political climate since leaving school and either working full time or going to university, we both agree that our opinions on government have definitely evolved and become far more conversant than they were when we were sixteen.
By Beckie Chaddock and Mia Penny
The National Justice Museum wants feedback from under 18s and those aged 18-24. The Museum is working on an upcoming exhibition for February 2018 that will explore the history of the right to vote and how some people are still excluded from this process. By completing this survey you will help shape content for this future exhibition.
Click here to complete on survey monkey
A Timeline of Voting Acts in the UK By Beckie Chaddock and Mia Penny
1688: The Great Revolution:
The Great Revolution essentially set in stone the constitutional monarchy that we have today. William of Orange, from Holland, tried to take the throne from James II which led to the creation of the ‘Bill of Rights’, preventing absolute rule by the Kings and Queens of Great Britain. This left the parliament as the true seat of power in the country.
1832: The Reform Act:
Henry VI passed statues declaring who was eligible to vote, specifically male owners of land worth at least 40 shillings, a freehold property and pays more than £10 a year in rates or rent. However, this only applies to the boroughs. This particular act raises the number of votes by 38 percent. 720,784 can now vote, in a population of over 10,000,000.
1830s-1840s: Pressure for change:
The most influential group for political change- the chartists- demanded six key reforms:
1) Manhood suffrage. Every man, regardless of class or property, should have the vote.
2) Annual elections
3) An end to the regional differences in the electoral system
4) Secret ballots (no one else would know who you voted for)
5) The end to property qualifications for MPs.
6) Payment for MPs. This would enable men who were not already wealthy to stand for election to Parliament.
1857: Parliamentary Reform Act:
The conservative government introduced the Parliamentary Reform Act which increased the electorate to almost 2.5 million.
1872: The Secret Ballot:
In 1872 The Secret Ballot was introduced. Prior to this, people could see what other people were voting on the polling day.
1884: The Third Reform Act:
The Third Reform Act equalises voting restrictions between countries and boroughs. Over 50% of adult men can now vote. Most British men over 21 may vote, if they lived in the same place for a year.
1913: Campaigns for women’s suffrage:
Campaigns for women’s suffrage go as far back as 1817. In 1893, New Zealand became the first self-governing country to allow women to vote. In the early 20th century women took action to fight for their rights; chaining themselves to railings, arson attacks, and even bombings. Emily Davison (a key figure of women’s voting rights) died at the Epsom Derby in 1913, when she ran out in front of the Kings horse, holding the banner for Women’s Social Union.
1918: The Representation of the People Act:
World War I gave women the opportunity to work in munition factories and farms; jobs that the men would usually do. This highlighted the fact that women and many soldiers were still unable to vote.
The act removed all property restrictions from male voters, and allowed women to vote for the first time- although not those under 30, and with property restrictions.
A bill was also passed allowing women to be members of parliament.
1928: The Equal Franchise Act:
10 years later- voting changed- allowing women to vote at 21, despite whether they held a property or not.
1969: The Representation of the People Act
Harold Wilson’s government dropped the voting age for all citizens from 21 to 18.
2002-2004: Few bills passed for the voting age:
Lord Lucas first introduced the bill for the Voting Age to be reduced to 16 in the House of Lords. In 2003, the bill for the voting age to be reduced to 16 has its second reading in the House of Lords. The electoral commission submits its final report to the government. It recommends that the age at which someone can become an MP is lowered to 18. However, the voting age remains 18, due to the public support for the reduction of the age being minimal.