Last year, the House of Lords debated a proposed bill to reduce the voting age to 16. This question, whether the vote should be extended to younger citizens, is often talked about but rarely progresses beyond surface-level debate. Viscount Stansgate's opening remark in the debate highlighted the problem: "The whole House knows this bill will not reach the statute book." Why such a flippant dismissal?

In this article, I will analyze the arguments put forward by the Lords in opposition to the bill, of which few have much merit. In doing so, I hope it will become clear that there is no excuse to delay the extension of the franchise to younger citizens any further.

Arguments against

The partisan games argument

Lord Rennard and Lord Hannan, on opposite sides, both begin to levy this accusation against each other. Rennard says that perhaps young people are disenfranchised on "the principle of staying in power." Hannan, on the other hand, claims that those in favor of the bill may have a "vested interest" in how the newly enfranchised citizens would vote.

The fact that both sides levy this accusation at each other should tell you enough about the nature and merit of this argument.

The primary issue is that it's not relevant to the bill. It's one thing to argue about the contents of a bill, the principles behind it, and the reasons why it is or is not just. It's an entirely different matter to speculate about the motives behind the bill being put in place. This argument falls into the "tu quoque" fallacy, to use the jargonistic term. This fallacy occurs when an objection is raised against the personal motives of those making the argument.

The reason it's wrong is because it goes both ways. Indeed, the enfranchisement of young people must have an impact on the overall outcome of an election; that's just basic math. In the case of Brexit, it might have changed the result to remain. But not enfranchising young people also has an impact on the overall outcome of the election, obviously.

So, the "partisan games" argument can be applied to both sides. Supposedly, one side wants the bill passed because it increases the chance of their party's victory. Also, supposedly, the other party doesn't want the bill passed because it increases the chance of their party's defeat.

There's no way to settle an argument of this kind. More importantly, this kind of argument takes away from the content of the bill and should be avoided. It's entirely possible that there are partisan motivations on both sides, and therefore the focus should be on whether the bill is just in its own right.

The lack of responsibility argument

This argument was quite common in the debate and points towards apparent inconsistencies in our treatment of younger citizens. The argument is something like:

"We prevent young people from doing certain things because we do not deem them fully responsible adults." Therefore, it is correct that they are enfranchised at the age at which we consider them responsible adults. An eye-rolling, characteristically British example is, "Well, if they can't buy a beer, how can we expect them to vote?" Another example likens the vote to botox. Lord Hannan really thinks he's dunked on the opposition here, highlighting that the week before, on the question of whether 16-year-olds were allowed Botox, much of the house agreed that 18 was the level of maturity.

He then questions if we can seriously argue that while 16- and 17-year-olds are prohibited from doing these things, they should be allowed to vote on whether other people can do these things.

Surely that's a better situation than we're in now? 16- and 17-year-olds are banned from doing these things without the vote, and even with the vote, they would still likely be banned (they are a numerically inferior demographic). So why is it a problem to let them have a political say in an issue that only affects them? Regardless, the fatal issue is that this argument mistakenly treats fundamentally different activities as equivalent or comparable.

Here's a list of activities:

  • Smoking

  • Drinking alcohol

  • Using explosives

  • Gambling

  • Permanent facial reconstruction

  • Going to war

  • Casting a vote

I hope it's not too difficult to find the odd one out. Voting is fundamentally different from these other actions and should be treated as such.

There is significantly higher potential for harm to be done when engaging in any of the activities involved in this list, besides voting. Therefore, we prevent younger citizens from engaging in these activities in order to protect them from the associated harms. I challenge anyone to argue that the associated potential harms of casting a vote are remotely comparable to any of the associated harms that come with the other examples. So, there is no valuable comparison to be made here. As Baroness Chakrabati rightly points out, "Botox is harmful [...], but voting is not."

Quickly, the question of whether younger citizens are 'responsible' enough to cast a vote can also be interpreted as asking whether they will be required to respect the outcomes of an election. If they are not responsible enough to cast a vote, then they don't need to respect the outcome (or so they say). However, even without the vote, younger citizens are expected to respect the outcomes of an election through the following of laws, respect for authority, etc. The expectations on younger citizens will be the same, whether they are enfranchised or not.

The question of standing for office

Baroness Falkner introduces the idea that if young citizens are enfranchised, then they should be able to run for office. It's an interesting argument, and I have little to say about it other than "yes." I don't think allowing a group of citizens to vote but denying them possible representation is a viable option. I also don't think that allowing younger citizens to run for office will end up in a society run by sixteen-year-olds, so there is no need to worry.

Going to war argument

Unfortunately, any credit Baroness Falkner gained in raising this interesting point was lost with the "obscenity" that she claims results from letting younger citizens vote. This argument won't take long to dispose of, as it is, frankly, bizarre. Baroness Falkner says that "it would be an obscenity if you yourself were to call on others to make the ultimate sacrifice but would not lead from the front in doing so yourself."

Basically, I think she's trying to say that younger citizens, who cannot join the front lines, should not be able to vote for other people to do the same. This may have been common in Sparta, but nowadays I think we all accept that just because you aren't going to the front lines doesn't mean you can't vote. I mean, for argument's sake, I don't think we'll be expecting Baroness Falkner to take up arms the next time she votes to intervene on foreign soil. It's an interesting question: what right do we have to vote to send people to war but not go ourselves? However, it is a question for the whole polity, not just younger citizens.

Lack of competence argument

I was pleasantly surprised to see limited attention given to the argument from political incompetence. Although it is likely the most employed argument against enfranchising children in day-to-day debates, it was rightly skirted here.

The general argument is that enfranchising sixteen and seventeen-year-olds would jeopardise democratic quality because their political competence is inferior to that of adults.

There is no evidence to suggest that democratic quality has been reduced by enfranchising sixteen and seventeen-year-olds in other countries like Germany and Switzerland.

I think it’s a stretch to assume that citizens of this age, who are in full time education, are significantly less politically competent than any other age group. From the anecdotes shared by both sides of the debate about visiting schools and colleges, this definitely does not seem to be the case.

If you’re going to employ the political incompetence argument, you’re going to have to extend this strict conception of the “necessary political competence to vote” to all citizens. I think that is unlikely to occur. On the contrary, there were swathes of first-hand accounts of Lords visiting schools and being thoroughly impressed with the level of knowledge and rationality found in students. This is a promising sign that the argument form political incompetence is losing its previous traction.

Lack of public support argument

Baroness Fox asks the question, "Why is there no mass agitation on the streets?" and Baroness Scott references a few surveys that indicate public opinion is not in favor of reducing the voting age.

To answer Baroness Fox, I'll make two points. The first point is again a point of principle. Just because there is no mass protest in the streets does not detract from the merits of the bill. There is no mass protest in the streets for many things that we consider important and necessary.

The second point is an explanation. There seems to be a universal consensus among members of the House of Lords that children are losing engagement with political life at an alarming rate. Therefore, is it not logical to conclude that the lack of noise from the younger age groups is due to this very disengagement? The fact that there is "no mass agitation on the streets" only serves to reiterate declining youth engagement in politics, something that enfranchisement of 16- and 17-year-olds would, if examples from other nations are anything to go by, help to reverse.

I can't provide an equally forceful response to Baroness Scott. The statistics she employs are valid, but it's important to consider the context in which these surveys took place. Although common in the House of Lords, the contents of the bill rarely see the light of day in everyday conversation.

British adults are notoriously flippant and conservative when it comes to the topic, and it is often brushed aside with a scoff. I argue that if this issue were given more public treatment, and both sides of the argument were presented, the results may very well be different.

All this is conjecture, however, and so I will make a brief point of principle regarding public opinion: it doesn't always need to be respected.

This sounds incredibly controversial, and I admit that it's a profound topic to introduce. People assume that democracy means the people get what they want. This isn't the case. For example, it's pretty well established that public opinion is likely to be in favor of capital punishment for certain heinous crimes. However, as a society, we are confident that the harms of capital punishment far outweigh the benefits, and therefore public opinion is not authoritative. This may be the same in the case of young people's voting. The public may be misinformed or underinformed and therefore may not have the relevant knowledge to be the authority on the subject.

It's a controversial topic and one that definitely requires more discussion, but I will leave it here. The lack of "agitation on the streets" is likely due to the very disengagement of youth, which will be, at least in part, remedied through their enfranchisement. The lack of public support is not necessarily a knockout argument against the bill, and given public education on the issue, I think it would likely change.

The good will of politicians’ argument

I call this argument the "goodwill of politicians" argument because that's exactly what Baroness Fox expects younger citizens to rely on.

She claims that we "must give them a vote, like a bribe or something," and to say that young people need the vote to be listened to "insults the democratic process."

Is this true? Is the vote not the very symbol of political representation required to guarantee a fair and just state? Why should citizens have to rely on the goodwill of politicians in order to be listened to? Would it have been acceptable to tell women, "You don't need the vote because we can just deal with your problems ourselves!"? I hope the naivety of Baroness Fox's argument is clear.

Sure, at some point, the political needs of younger citizens must be deferred to older citizens. However, the vote is, in theory, the mechanism that affords citizens protection from the will of other people. We should be very careful not to disenfranchise any group, and to treat 16-year-olds as political equals is archaic and unjust. It's no wonder that younger citizens are disinterested and disillusioned with politics, and their enfranchisement is a necessary step in their reintegration into the political sphere.


When I first completed my dissertation on this topic, I was certain that my argument was sound. This is rare for a philosophy undergrad, but I don't attribute that to any stroke of talent from myself. The fact of the matter was that, objectively, it's clear that the enfranchisement of younger citizens is a movement in the right direction.

This belief has only been strengthened after reviewing the first House of Lords debate on the subject. There's a promising amount of support throughout. However, there is one thing that was not mentioned: voting is good in and of itself. It engages citizens with the political process and, in turn, makes them better voters. There is no better way to increase a citizen's political competence than by encouraging them to vote. At a time when democratic quality is faltering, the enfranchisement of younger citizens will create a more engaged and politically competent group of young adults—something this country desperately needs.

To conclude, this debate on the Young People's Enfranchisement Bill has only served to expose the inadequacy of the opposition's arguments and further highlight the need for younger citizens to be engaged, respected, and represented in the political process. Their enfranchisement is the first step we can take in achieving this aim.