Thursday, June 4, 2015

First attempt to change the conditions for voting in the referendum

Readers of this blog will recall that I mentioned who will be entitled to vote in the coming EU referendum. In brief it will include everyone who is entitled to vote in a General Election with the addition of peers of the realm if they are entitled to vote in local elections and citizens of Gibraltar (something I forgot to mention but I do not think anyone will object to that). I also said that, undoubtedly, there will be attempts to change those qualifications to make them more "inclusive".

The first attempt involves qualification by age. In the UK as a whole people can vote once they have attained their eighteenth year but for the Scottish independence referendum the Scottish Assembly gave the vote to 16 and 17 year olds. There is now an attempt to add that group to those who should be able to vote in the EU referendum. HMG is, rightly in my opinion, resisting it.

On June 1 Lord Kennedy of Southwark asked HMG:
what plans they have to consider proposals to allow 16 and 17 year-olds to vote in any referendum on membership of the European Union.
HMG has no plans at present to consider any such thing, as Baroness Anelay of St Johns told him:
This is an issue of national importance, so the parliamentary franchise is the right approach. It was the franchise used for previous UK referendums. The Government have no plans to lower the voting age.
Ah yes, said Lord Kennedy, but this is an issue that will have a profound effect on the 16 and 17 year-olds' future and should they not be allowed to vote on such matters.

Given that Lord Kennedy's party has resisted the idea of asking anybody in the country on this issue that will have a profound effect on all our futures it seems a little odd that he should be so worried about 16 and 17 year-olds not having a say in it. Furthermore, I would say the decision will have a profound effect on the future of 14 and 15 year-olds and, as it was mentioned in the subsequent discussion, some 14 year-olds have more sense than many 17 and even 18 year-olds.

In the end the arguments for making that change boil down to two: there are certain things that young people of that age can already do, though joining the Armed Forces and getting married is something they can do only with their parents' consent and the Scots have, presumably in the hopes that this group will vote for independence introduced an anomaly into an already complicated electoral system.

We were told by several peers that the 16 and 17 year-olds embraced their right with enthusiasm though the evidence for that is not all that clear:
The pattern is much as would be anticipated from the experience of other countries such as Austria and Norway that have already enfranchised 16 and 17 year olds. On the one hand, encouraged perhaps by mum and dad to make the journey to the polling station, 16 and 17 year olds were more likely to vote than were those aged 18-24, many of whom would no longer be living at home. On the other hand, they were still less likely to vote than those who were more than twice their age. To that extent, the referendum turnout amongst 16 and 17 year olds still reflects the general tendency for younger voters to be less likely to make it to the polls. Those who look to the enfranchisement of 16 and 17 year olds in all elections as a way of boosting turnout should, it seem, not set their expectations too high.

More precisely, according to ICM’s survey, 75% of 16 and 17 year olds voted, compared with 54% of 18-24 year olds and 72% of 25-34 year olds. The turnout in all three groups is markedly lower than the estimate for 35-54 year olds (85%) and those aged 55 and over (92%).
Or, in other words, the fact that they no longer have compulsory education (though there is some talk of changing that) and can legitimately indulge in sexual activity is not necessarily a good reason for giving those 16 and 17 year-olds the vote even if mum and dad will chase them out to vote, particularly when we note that the turn-out for that referendum was exceptionally high.

The subject of turn-out among young voters came up again in the subsequent debate on the Queen's Speech that covered matters of constitutional importance (and anything that noble Lords thought they might drag in).

Lord Falconer of Thoroton, speaking first for the Labour Party, said [scroll down]:
In the last election, for example, 43% of those aged between 18 and 24 who were registered to vote voted, whereas 78% of those aged over 65 did so. I am glad that the turnout was so high among the over-65s. I worry that the Government will not be a Government for the young. Of the 43% who voted in this youngest age group, only around a quarter supported the Conservatives—so the Conservatives have the support of maybe 12% of those aged between 18 and 25.
One sympathizes with the noble Lord's worries but they are entirely misplaced. It seems that the majority of the "young" do not care all that much who is in the government and those who do tend to vote left, not an unknown phenomenon in history. Given the figures for older groups of voters, people tend to overcome both those mistakes. By the time of the next election a good many of the "young" will decide to vote and may well vote Conservative, depending on what this government does in the meantime.

In any case that is no indicator of how the same "young" will vote in an IN/OUT referendum and hardly an argument for extending that vote to 16 and 17 year-olds who would then be in the slightly anomalous position of not being allowed to decide whether they can drink alcohol or smoke but being considered old enough to make electoral decisions.

As I said before, I suspect that this is the first of many attempts to widen the electorate of the EU referendum.

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