The twentieth anniversary of the first elections to the Welsh Assembly passed earlier this month, on 6 May. One day later, the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee held its fifth evidence session regarding the Senedd and Elections (Wales) Bill. Laura McAllister believes that the bill contains much needed reforms, arguing here for its proposed lowering of the voting age for Assembly elections to 16.
It seems to me to be a fundamental democratic and constitutional principle that an elected parliament or assembly should be able to determine its own system of election and its own franchise. I spent all of 2017 chairing an Expert Panel on Assembly Electoral Reform having been appointed by the Assembly’s Presiding Officer to make recommendations on the number of Members the Assembly needs, the system by which they should be elected, and the minimum voting age for Assembly elections. We were asked to make recommendations which, provided the required political consensus could be achieved, might be implemented in time for the next Assembly election in 2021. I was fortunate to be joined on the Expert Panel by a stellar line-up of practitioners and academics themselves immersed in parliamentary structures, franchise matters, effective scrutiny, different electoral systems and gender representation. We reported in December 2017, with one of our recommendations being that the franchise should be extended to include young people aged 16 and 17 for the next Assembly elections.
The Senedd and Elections (Wales) Bill is currently at stage one of the Welsh legislative process. Amongst other things, it proposes to legislate on votes at 16, bringing Wales in line with Scotland where 16- year olds vote in local and national elections since 2015 (they were also able to vote in the 2014 independence referendum). There are other important elements to the bill. Part 2 proposes a name change to rename the Assembly as the ‘Senedd’ (or Welsh Parliament in English). Some rather technical matters have been raised about how this change is instituted through changes to the Government of Wales Act 2006, alongside concerns over a bilingual (or otherwise) title and the risk of potential legal challenge. Nevertheless, I’d argue that this is a logical and timely move that reflects the move to a reserved powers model of devolution, alongside the accrual of new powers and competences (including over its electoral system) and several important new tax powers meaning the institution is now responsible for one fifth of its fiscal income. The name change might also assist better understanding of the different roles of the Assembly/Parliament (the legislature) and the Welsh Government (the executive), which remains an area of confusion in Wales.
Part 3 of the bill provides for a change in arrangements for funding and oversight of the Electoral Commission, placing the responsibility with the Assembly itself. This would mean the commission would report directly to the Assembly, not to government ministers as currently, with full independence and improved scrutiny key.
Part 4 sets out new rules for the disqualification of elected members, essentially widening the category to include members of the House of Lords (unless they take a sabbatical from the Lords) and Lord Lieutenants and High Sheriffs.
Part 5 is interesting for those wrestling with the new political dynamics of devolution and a fundamentally more pluralist politics. It refers to extending ‘the time within which the first meeting of the Senedd after a general election must be held’, proposing to lengthen that period from seven to 14 days. There is another argument that no specific time should be specified in legislation, given the very concept is rooted in a traditional, more majoritarian style of politics. Other European nations take much longer to convene after an election, given the tendency for coalition governments and the time that these take to negotiate.
On to the most interesting and far-reaching part of the bill. When I gave evidence to the Assembly Constitutional and Legal Affairs Committee which is scrutinising the bill, I made the point that not one of us on the Expert Panel was evangelical about lowering the voting age. None of us held a strong, normative commitment to votes at 16 that we then sought to evidence. On the contrary, we weighed up the empirical evidence available and, sensitive to the political mood, concluded that a reduction in the minimum voting age to 16 would be a powerful contribution to enhanced democratic engagement. Ours was not an argument about individual rights and decision-making, it was one about democracy and the potential to improve it.
It’s true to say there is limited longitudinal evidence on this area, as most cases of lowering the voting age are relatively recent. Nevertheless, there is evidence that is instructive. Whilst the voting age in most EU countries is 18, there are exceptions. In Austria, the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey, the minimum voting age is 16. It is also 16 in Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador, and Nicaragua. In Slovenia, 16-year-olds may vote if they are in employment; in Hungary, 16-year-olds may vote if they are married; in Norway, 16-year-olds may vote in local elections in some municipalities; in Malta, the minimum voting age for local elections is 16; in Italy, only those over the age of 25 may vote in elections to the Senate.
It’s also true that opinion polls on this issue consistently show limited support for an extension of the franchise, although they also show that how you pose the question makes a difference. However, the issue appears to be one of low salience to the public, and many people are unlikely to have given much thought to it. Many opposed to lowering the voting age refer to the matter of legal age thresholds. The truth is there is a lack of coherence and consistency in the thresholds which apply in the UK and internationally. The reality is that there is no single age at which a young person takes on all the rights and responsibilities of an adult citizen. If there were one threshold for everything else, there could be a consistency argument, but there isn’t. Neither has the direction of travel for changes to age restrictions been uniform. And, as I said, ours is not an argument about individual rights so those reminding us that there have been a rise in age restrictions for things like obtaining tattoos or using tanning salons rather misses our point.
The other principal consideration for us was around young people’s participation and likely impact on election turnout. There is evidence that, when supported by appropriate and effective citizenship education, and in relation to higher salience elections, a reduction in the voting age can result in higher turnout among 16- and 17-year-olds than 18- to 21-year-olds. Whilst acknowledging that a referendum is different to an election, the Scottish Independence referendum in 2014 saw three-quarters of 16 and 17 year olds cast their vote, interestingly this was 50% higher than for the next age group 18-24 year olds. In the Scottish local elections in 2017, 51% of 16-18 year olds voted, compared 39% of the next age group up.
Significantly, our recommendation on lowering the voting age had a condition, namely to ensure that young people are encouraged and supported to exercise their right to vote, any reduction in the minimum voting age should be accompanied by appropriate, effective and non-partisan political and citizenship education. We recommended that such education should be part of a broader range of actions taken by the Assembly, the Welsh Government and others to increase youth engagement and political participation. We regarded such actions as likely to be more effective if targeted at the higher salience Assembly election in 2021 than the local government elections in 2022.
This is important given plans by the Welsh Government to introduce its own legislation lowering the voting age for local elections from 2022. It would be extremely anomalous and potentially confusing to electors, as well as creating additional administrative and political issues, if the voting age for Assembly elections from 2021 were not also reduced. The evidence suggests that higher salience elections are more likely to result in higher turnout and voter participation; it is therefore desirable that if the franchise is to be extended in Wales, it should first take effect at the higher salience Assembly election.
There are also good practical and logistical reasons for expecting that establishing the habit of voting at a young age, when most young people still live at home, can lead to increased turnout in the longer term. Some of my academic colleagues suggest that if resources were targeted at any age group, its turnout would likely rise. That’s a fair point but in itself rather undermines arguments about the potential to boost turnout and engagement. Indeed, this was something that tipped us towards recommending lowering the age, namely that it is much easier to target resources at people who are still in full-time education than those who are not. We cannot be sure whether any age group in the same environment would behave in the same way, but the fact is that other age groups are not in the same environment. Therefore, it is inarguable that opportunities for targeted information and improved political education are much greater among those who are still at school. Contrary to some evidence submitted to the committee, we were not suggesting allocating resources to young people because they are not ready to vote, instead the goal was to help them become good citizens.
Some argue that 16- and 17-year-olds lack the necessary political knowledge, maturity and independence of thought to vote. Again, evidence is difficult here but there are some studies. Some have been conducted in places where young people have not been enfranchised, and some where they have. The results vary, but the key evidence comes from those places where 16- and 17-year-olds can vote. For example, research by the Electoral Commission found that in the 2017 local elections in Scotland, 16- and 17-year-olds found it easier than 18- to 24-year-olds to access information on how to cast their votes, and were less likely to find it difficult to complete their ballot paper. They also showed that voters aged under 18 accessed information from a more diverse range of sources than any other group.
As chair of a panel which made firm recommendations about the Assembly’s size and electoral system too, you would expect me to say that there are things missing from the bill. Others agree. The Electoral Reform Society stated in its committee evidence that:
‘While we are eminently supportive of the changes to the voting age included in this piece of legislation we are disappointed that other potential avenues of assembly reform have yet to be explored. The size of the assembly is an issue that affects the working of the Senedd in all its roles and it is imperative that we do not see that issue kicked into the long grass. An extension of the franchise would lead to an additional number of people on the electoral roll, meaning more pressure on Assembly Members when they are already under strain. We hope that this legislation is just the first step in a journey of assembly reform.’
Clearly, these are far more delicate and controversial political (and especially party political) matters, plus they are subject to a supermajority of two-thirds of all AMs.
We know that votes at 16 is no silver bullet for our democratic travails, but in the current political climate, it must surely be worth a try.
For a view on these reforms from inside the Constitution Unit, see here for a blog on the subject by our Deputy Director, Alan Renwick, who served on the Expert Panel.
You can read the full report of the Expert Panel on Assembly Electoral Reform at this link.
About the author
Laura McAllister is Professor of Public Policy and the Governance of Wales at Cardiff University Wales Governance Centre and chaired the Assembly Expert Panel on Electoral Reform.