16 and 17 year-olds and the EU Referendum

‘Should 16- and 17-year-olds be given the right to vote’ is a topic that has been discussed a lot recently in the UK. The Scottish Independence Referendum in 2014 was a case to the point as the 16- and 17-year-olds were given the opportunity to vote and the results indicated that 89% of all 16- to 17-year-olds residents in Scotland registered to vote, which provides an exceptional case. Therefore, one could argue that young people are not a politically apathetic generation. The Scottish Independence Referendum example proves that young people are not completely disengaged from formal politics. Once given the right to vote, the 16- and 17-year-olds who used to be disenfranchised, showed high level of engagement in the referendum. And yet, this age group was not given the right to vote in the EU Referendum earlier this year.

Would the EU Referendum result have been different if the 16- and 17-year-olds had been given the right to vote? Would the enfranchising of the 16- and 17-year-olds have awakened their interest in politics and influenced them to become politically active? These are the questions that not only political scientists have been asking but also the British citizens who are not totally disengaged from the political system.

Of course, youth disengagement continues to be a major issue facing contemporary democracies, especially Britain. However, being disengaged and being disenfranchised are two completely different things. In terms of conventional/formal political participation, being disengaged means not being politically active because you choose so; whereas being disenfranchised means not having the right to engage in formal politics.

‘Should the 16- and 17-year-olds be given the right to vote’? There are arguments for both sides. However, in this post I will not be analysing the debates about it, but will be looking at 16- and 17-year-olds and the EU Referendum, and answer the questions posed above.

Even though, 16- and 17-year-olds will be the generation that will have to live with the consequences of the referendum, they were not given the right to vote. Did the Government let the British citizens aged 65+ to decide the future of the new generation? The politically apathetic under-30-year-olds were under-represented at the polls. Even though, the engagement of the young people in the EU Referendum was higher than the usual one in the UK, it did not mean that it was higher than the other age groups. About 64% of the registered voters aged 18-24 voted and 90% of the ones aged over 65 voted. So why did young people still not vote at the same rate as their elders? Was it lack of interest or lack of knowledge? Well, when it comes to the 16- and 17-year-olds, it was definitely the lack of the right to vote.

Allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote would have added about 1.6 million potential voters, but it is extremely hard to know if this could have affected the outcome of the referendum, or even if this age group would have actually voted or would have just been apathetic and alienated, instead of disenfranchised. Even though, the enfranchising of the 16- and 17-year-olds in Austria has improved the youth turnout, there are mixed results. For instance, Wagner et al (2009), who are in favour of the lowering the age in voting, reported that in the 2009 European Parliament elections, the turnout of the under 18s was lower than any other age group in the electorate with 59.1% (62.4% for 18-24s, and 73.8% for those over 30).

So if the 16- and 17-year-olds were given the right to vote, would the result have been different? The difference between the ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ was 1, 269, 501 votes. 61% of the under-30s reported backing ‘Remain’ in the referendum. Let’s assume for a minute that also 61% of the 1,600,000 potential voters aged 16 and 17 backed ‘Remain’; this equals to 976,000 additional votes for ‘Remain’, which is still not enough to have bridged the gap between the ‘Remain’ and ‘Leave’ votes. This is, of course, a very vague prediction as one could not be sure if 16- and 17-year-olds were given the vote, how many of them would have exercised their right to vote and whether they would have backed ‘Remain’. If they were enfranchised, then maybe the results of the referendum could have been closer but does not mean they could have been different as the missing votes of the 16- and 17-year-olds are not enough to have changed the result. However, it could be argued that enfranchising this age group may be a huge step towards engaging more young people in politics and having possible future implications for voting from earlier age.

Two thirds of the under 30 years old voted in the EU referendum this year, which raises a question about whether we can still talk about apathy and alienation amongst the youth when it comes to politics. Maybe a new wave of engaged young people are entering the electorate. One could argue that young people’s participation in the EU referendum was higher because it is an issue they care about, which motivated them to vote. Several academics have suggested during the past 20 years that a new kind of political generation has emerged: young people are not interested in conventional politics as they focus on single issues and are influenced by the single-issued politics. Therefore, this affects young people’s willingness to vote as long as the issue they are interested in is raised by a political party. This could be applied to both the EU Referendum and the Scottish Independence Referendum which would indicate that young people voted because it was an issue they care about. Therefore, we cannot expect this kind of engagement to be definitely translated/carried out in a General Election.

The Scottish Independence Referendum showed that young people engage in politics if they care about the issues, with a 75% turnout among the 16- and 17-year-olds voters. Surveys report that more than 60% of the youth generation has interest in politics (for example, see Henn and Foard 2012; Mycock and Tonge 2004). For example, Matt Henn and Nick Ford stated that the youth are interested in politics; yet, they feel “powerless” (Henn and Foard 2011). So does having interest in politics mean a young person will be politically active? The results from the project ‘Young people and the EU Referendum’ reported that the age group ‘under 30s’ interest in politics increased throughout the referendum campaign, which resulted in higher engagement with the referendum among that age group.  The study showed that young people aged 18 to 30 had an increased interest in politics, which, it could be argued, made them more likely to vote. This suggests that allowing 16 and 17-year olds to vote might not necessarily have led to an unusually high number of them voting, but could have boosted their engagement with politics more broadly.

If the EU referendum enfranchised the 16- and 17-year-olds, this might not have been enough to swing the results; however, it could have set the precedent for future elections in the UK. Over time, the political engagement of this age group could have increased and they could have developed a habit of higher participation.

There are reasons to believe that enfranchising the 16- and 17- year-olds could at least lead to this age group becoming more interested in politics. It could also be argued that if this age group was allowed to vote, then maybe politicians would start paying more attention to them and to addressing issues they care about. And as the literature and previous studies have showed, young people are influenced by single issues, which could mean that if politicians start addressing the issues young people care about, then their interest in politics will increase, which will lead them to being more politically active. There is a virtuous circle here, but it takes a Government willing to set things in motion.

About The Project:

The ‘Should we stay or should we go: Young People and the EU Referendum’ project is a study of young people’s attitudes towards and engagement with the EU referendum campaign. Using data from a dedicated UK-wide survey of under 30s and a wide range of publicly available data and academic research we will address four key themes.

For more information go to www.wiserd.ac.uk/eureferendum/

Magdelina Kitanova is a PhD student in politics at the University of Southampton. Magdelina can be contacted via Twitter on @mkitanova