Young people should be welcomed into the democratic system. This is an opportunity we should not pass up. The next general election may be the last in which 16 and 17-year-olds cannot vote, after the announcement that Labour targets the Vote at 16. Extending the vote to 16 has institutional support at the European level. In the UK, however, the vote at 16 may not be an equal one. In January, shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan confirmed Labour is considering compulsory voting for 16 and 17-year-olds, arguing that we must “get [young people] into the habit of voting” – a direct reference to the current crisis in electoral turnout. Increasingly, young people do not vote and continue not to vote as they get older. Now, we may be about to punish them with fines for failing to do so.
Forcing people to vote is one way to fill a ballot box. But compulsory voting would miss the wood for the trees. Poor turnout is a symptom of the deep marginalisation of young people in our democracy. The reason for young marginalisation is not that young people have fallen out of the habits of democracy, but that they have been left out in the cold during a dual economic and political crisis in the UK. Votes at 16 could be our opportunity to better welcome them back into our democratic system, and better represent them as equal democratic subjects. 16 and 17-year-olds who are granted equal electoral rights elsewhere turn out able, interested and motivated as fellow citizens. Is the vote at 16 our chance to do the same in the UK?