In 2014, 16 and 17-year-olds in Scotland won the right to vote in the independence referendum. And they used that right - 16- and 17-year-olds had higher rates of turnout than 18-34 year olds. It’s a pattern of high engagement that has been repeated in elections since.
This week, the Welsh Government formally launch plans to follow up that success – introducing votes at 16 for local elections. But it comes as part of a broader package to bring democracy into the 21st Century:
- Introducing mobile polling stations to bring the ballot box closer to people – particularly in rural areas
- Setting up voting stations in convenient public spaces such as supermarkets, local libraries, leisure centres and railway stations
- Seeing if voting could take place on other days of the week – rather than just Thursdays
- And – particularly relevant for supporters of electoral reform – changes would also be made to the voting system itself, with every council being given the option of using the Single Transferable Vote system
These changes put Wales at the forefront of democratic reform and a fairer franchise.
But they will also lead to something else – the glaring constitutional injustice of 16 and 17-year-olds being able to vote in local elections in Scotland and Wales, while over a million people of the same age in England and Northern Ireland will be denied that right.
At the same time, voters in Wales and Scotland will be denied the vote for Westminster – while having it for most other elections. So they can pick their councillors – but not their MPs.
This gives rise to an inconsistency which smacks of injustice. How can a 16 year old in Bangor have a say in the way their local authority is run but not their home town at a Parliamentary level? And how is it that a 16 year old in Bristol has no say in how their society is run?
The facts speak for themselves: this generation of school leavers are more clued up on politics than ever. And 16 and 17-year-olds threw themselves wholeheartedly into the Scottish independence referendum – with 75% voting and 97% saying they would vote in future elections. They accessed more information from a wider variety of sources than any other age group.
At the same time, there is a widening gulf between people and politics which we can help reverse. Instead of locking people out, we can nurture active and engaged young citizens for the health of our democracy. As we’ve seen from Scotland, when young people help build a deep and diverse political debate, we all benefit.
This is now in Theresa May’s court. If she wants to show she is committed to a stronger and less divided country she should get behind the movement for a fairer franchise.
Because even those opposed to extending the franchise for the referendum at the time – such as Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson – now back it after seeing the inspiring impact it has.
For the Prime Minister, this is about being on the right side of history. It’s time for the UK government to come forward with proposals for reform in line with Wales and Scotland. Wales has led the way – now Westminster needs to catch up.
Jess Blair is the director of the Electoral Reform Society in Wales