By Richard Penny, Teaching Fellow in Political Theory and PhD student at the University of Southampton (Academia.edu). You can read more posts by Richard here.
If commentary is to be believed, Ed Miliband’s speech to the Labour party conference set out a frightening picture of Britain in 2020 – riven by power outages and the confiscation of private property. But these two nightmarish visions pale into comparison with Miliband’s third major announcement – the dystopian pledge to give young people more of a say over how society is run.
In proposing to lower the voting age to 16, Miliband raised an issue which had laid largely dormant in mainstream politics since the voting age was lowered to 18 (from 21) in The Representation of the People Act in 1969. Nonetheless, the question of who should be able to vote, and why, remains of great normative (or moral) importance and interest.
However, whilst the question Miliband raised may have been interesting, the same could not be said for much of the immediate reaction. ‘No representation without taxation’ thundered some – ignoring the fact that young people pay many taxes (particularly VAT, taxes on savings, and taxes relating to work), and that linking the right to vote to a citizen’s taxable contribution seems morally troubling (not least in a society in which receiving taxable income is still a strongly male privilege). Other commentators argued that we ought to let children be children, without ‘corrupting’ them with politics (and presumably leaving them free to pursue innocent childish activities like climbing trees and playing the latest instalment of Grand Theft Auto). Other arguments took on a more practical hue, claiming variously that young people won’t bother to vote (in which case it’s not clear what the problem would be), or that lowering the voting age will result in mass manipulation of young people by radical parties. Some commentators, confusingly, made both arguments at the same time.
The more serious and thoughtful responses to Miliband’s proposals tended to focus on the idea that young people simply aren’t capable of making the kinds of informed decision which are necessary to vote effectively. This claim seems harder to dismiss. After all, it seems clear enough that there are many young people who we might not want making important decisions on our behalf (you probably walk past a lot of them on the way to campus each morning).
But how far can this thought actually take us? If we are brutally honest, we’d surely have to admit that there are also plenty of over 18s who we might not want making important decisions on our behalves (you probably walk past a lot of them on campus each morning). And this serves to illustrate a problem for the ‘competency’ argument for restricting young people from voting. Namely that whatever we mean when we say that young people are “incapable of making an informed decision”, the same will surely apply to some adults too. Or conversely, on whichever metric we choose (‘life-experience’, ‘maturity’, ‘intelligence’, ‘political knowledge’) there will almost certainly be some people under 18 who perform better than some over 18.
One solution would be to adopt a competency test across all members of society. However, this looks objectionable for a lot of reasons. But if so, then what the competency argument is really saying is that ‘since some young people aren’t competent to vote, all young people should be barred from voting’. This looks considerably shakier. Even if we grant that some young people might not be ‘competent’ to vote it would seem rather unfair to use this as a basis to restrict others who were competent. To take a parallel, there are many elderly voters who – given the remorseless passage of time – might fairly have their competency to vote questioned. But even if we were willing to say this (and good luck to the politician who tries), it would seem patently wrong to remove the vote from other elderly voters who retained the competency we were identifying.
At this point a defender of the competency argument might claim that the issue is simply one of practicality. ‘Yes’, they may concede, ‘some young people might be capable of informed voting – but in general, most aren’t, and it’s simply not practical to work out who is and who isn’t’. But this idea also seems difficult to defend. The right to vote is surely not something that ought to be conditional on its being easy to administer. Keeping an electoral roll of over 44 million people is difficult to administer. So are elections! And yet we not only do both, but we even send ballot papers around the world to expatriates, and set up polling stations in isolated communities so that citizens can not only vote, but vote conveniently. In all these cases it seems evident that the right to vote is far more important than the cost to society of enabling this right. But if this is the case then it seems that the very most the defender of the competency argument can demand is that we set up some kind of test for those under 18.
Is this a satisfactory compromise? There are reasons to suppose it is not. Would it have been a satisfactory compromise for the suffragettes to accept a competency test in order to ‘prove’ that women were competent voters? Even if every woman were to pass such a test, and have her vote, the existence of the test itself would surely signify a kind of second-class status for women that should trouble a society committed to equal citizenship. To withhold from all members of a social group such an important right such as voting, on the basis that some – supposedly – may not be able to use it properly is not a standard we would accept with regards to race, gender, educational achievement or income. It is not clear what makes age different. Just as we would not accept a competency test for the elderly, it seems that we should reject one for young people too.
 Note too that defining what ‘competency’ to vote means is far from simple. What is competency? And worse, who gets to decide?