Lowering voting age boosts long-term participation in elections

Young people given the vote from age 16 in Scotland are not only more likely to continue voting as they get older, but do so in higher numbers, a new study shows.

A photo of a person on a hill looking out above a cityscape lit at dusk.
  • The impact of lowering the voting age in Scotland shows that those given the opportunity to vote at 16 and 17, are more likely to vote in higher numbers
  • The new study shows they continue to vote in higher numbers at ages where turnout is traditionally low, disrupting traditional voter lifecycle patterns
  • The data shows positive effects on reducing inequality in turnout for different socio-economic groups, however this effect wears off in subsequent elections
  • Experts say the findings make the case for giving younger people the right to vote across the UK to improve long-term voting behaviour

Young people given the vote from age 16 in Scotland are not only more likely to continue voting as they get older, but do so in higher numbers, a new study shows.

The new research found that young people in Scotland, who were enfranchised - or given the right to vote - from the age of 16 since the 2014 Independence Referendum, went to the ballots in greater numbers, and have continued voting in higher numbers than their peers who only had the opportunity from the age of 18.

The study, a collaboration between the University of Sheffield and University of Edinburgh academics, is the first of its kind in the UK to assess what long-term impact lowering the voting age has on the democratic process.

Researchers say the change has had positive long-term consequences for turnout. The study found, on average, more first-time voters, aged 16-17, reported to have voted in the 2021 Scottish Parliament Election compared to the number of 18-19 year olds.

The study also found the trend was replicated for the age groups who first voted in the 2014 Independence Referendum, with a higher average of 22-24 years voting (who first voted at 16-17), than the 24-26 years voting (who first voted at 18-19).

These findings not only suggest a lower voting age appears to be positively associated with voter turnout in young people, but that the change in the law appears to affect young people's voting patterns well into their twenties, a time where people usually show the lowest turnout over the course of their lives.

Dr Christine Huebner, from the University of Sheffield’s Sheffield Methods Institute, said: “The data for this study is unique, as it allows us for the first time to look into the long-term voting trends in Scotland after 16-17 year olds were given the vote.

“This change appears to have disrupted the usual lifecycle patterns for political engagement, with the decline in voter participation during early adulthood years (the mid-twenties) being smaller for those enfranchised at age 16. This shows these young people not only vote in higher numbers, they continue voting at ages where voter turnout is usually at its lowest.”

Dr Jan Eichhorn, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of Social and Political Science, lead author of the study said: “Allowing 16- and 17-year olds to vote was a good decision taken by the Scottish Parliament. Many younger first-time voters retain a habit of voting and participate in greater numbers than older first-time voters. The findings strengthen the case for enfranchising younger voters across the UK to improve long term voting behaviour. But more can be done. Making sure all young people receive great civic education that includes learning how to discuss political issues well, could help reduce persistent social inequalities in turnout.”

The study also explored wider political engagement and the socio-economic background of voters. When voting aged 16 or 17, the study found that socio-economic turnout inequalities were reduced and engagement in non-electoral politics was boosted, but these trends were not maintained as voters got older.

Dr Huebner added: “There are many factors that affect why people engage with politics. Younger generations of voters are at ages where they are experiencing life's big changes; moving out of the family home; going to university; joining new social circles and starting a career for example. Those influences could reveal influences that affect people’s motivation to participate over and above voting in the future.

“It will be interesting to see more research done to understand why lowering the voting age initially reduces inequality in voter turnout and engagement, but that doesn't last and how we can address this in the future.”

The report concludes with five recommendations for how governments can explore how to encourage lasting change in democratic engagement among young people beyond the act of voting; by encouraging civic education; improving a research base to be used to support lowering the voting age; and providing opportunities for democratic debate across all age groups in places such as workplaces and educational institutions.

Dr Huebner said: “With a number of countries having already lowered their own national voting ages, or looking to advance similar reforms to Scotland, notably Germany, Belgium, and Canada; this report clearly demonstrates that advocating for a lowering of the voting age to 16 for all, gives more people the opportunity to benefit from engaging with politics, but also encourages higher civic participation in democracy.”

An online discussion hosted by d|part, the Think Tank for Political Participation on Tuesday 17 January 2023 offers an opportunity to engage more with the academics, and their research. To register visit: Votes at 16: Making it a success

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