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What happens when the voting age is lowered to 16?

Learning lessons from young people’s experiences of the Welsh 2021 Senedd election.

Lowering the voting age to 16 is discussed in several countries, often with the aim of fostering greater political participation among young people. How do young people experience voting at 16 and 17 though when they can do so? To answer this question, it is now possible to draw on new evidence from young people voting in Wales. Our research explored young people’s experiences of the 2021 Senedd election, the first election after Wales lowered the voting age to 16.

Our research report, published today, offers new evidence from this first election with Votes-at-16 in Wales along with concrete recommendations for policymakers and stakeholders of youth voter engagement on what is needed to mobilise young people to vote in elections. The recommendations are useful for policymakers in Wales, the rest of the UK, and internationally and for youth organisations, activists, and young people looking to enhance youth voter engagement in the future.

To develop our recommendations presented in the report we held focus group discussions with 16- and 17- year-olds from across Wales before and after the election, in which 86 young people participated. Some young people also kept election diaries, sharing an in-the-moment insight into their election experience. We also interviewed stakeholders of youth voter engagement work in Wales: representatives of Welsh youth organisations and institutions, electoral registration officers, and youth workers.

Mixed experiences: some young people faced a lot of barriers to voting

The findings highlight that young people in Wales faced a range of barriers to turning out to vote in the election – some exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, others that would have existed regardless of the pandemic. Timing proved to be key for young people and many initiatives supporting young people in turning out to vote struggled with the timing of the election that conflicted with many young people’s school assessments. Political parties largely failed to engage with the youngest voters in ways that are relevant to them and in time for young people to register to vote.

The research shows that delivering voting age reform and mobilising young people from across the country is a complex effort. Informal networks of youth organisations and youth democratic engagement activists working together proved helpful. These networks need to be formalised and resourced in the future.

Young people’s voting journeys are longer

As first-time voters young people tend to have longer voting journeys with distinct stages, including becoming aware of the right to vote, registering to join the electoral roll, and engaging with political parties and the media to make a vote choice. To turn out to vote in an election, young people need to be supported along each of these stages of their voting journeys. Some Welsh young people received more support than others, and experiences of engagement with the election varied considerably among young people from different family backgrounds and from different parts of Wales.

Long-term investments into mobilising young voters necessary

To mobilise more young people in Wales to engage with and vote in future elections, young people need to see barriers to voting, such as a clash of elections and assessment periods, removed. Political parties must directly engage with young people, by publishing party policies in formats young people are likely to access and by promoting a more diverse and younger range of candidates standing for elections.

For a long-term investment in young people’s engagement with elections – in Wales or elsewhere where a lowering of the voting age is actively considered – 16- and 17-year-old first-time voters must be offered timely and systematic support along each stage of their voting journeys. This support has to include statutory political education in schools and colleges as well as extra-curricular opportunities for young people to form and gain confidence in their political opinions.

Our interactive infographic allows policymakers, youth practitioners, and young people to experience the stages of young people’s voting journeys, read information on the barriers young people in Wales had to overcome, and view recommendations on how young people can be supported in each stage of the voting journey.

Learning from evidence with young people and policymakers in Wales and beyond

There is a lot to be learnt from young people’s experiences of the first election with Votes-at-16 in Wales. Policymakers in Wales and beyond must ensure that these evidence-based lessons are taken forward and further longitudinal evidence is collected to better understand what conditions and approaches are particularly important for the successful implementation of Votes-at-16.

On Monday 8 November, we will make a start for this when the research will be discussed with young people, policymakers, and practitioners to work towards investments into the long-term success of ‘Votes-at-16’ and youth political engagement in Wales:

Making Votes-at-16 Work in Wales: Lessons for the future

8 November, 13:00-14.45pm, Online event
Everybody welcome – click here to register and receive the joining information

Download the report and recommendations here.

We welcome enquiries and discussion about our findings, or proposals for future research.

The research was funded by the UK Democracy Fund, a Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust Ltd initiative, and conducted by Dr Christine Huebner and Dr Katherine Smith at Nottingham Trent University, in collaboration with researchers at the universities of Huddersfield, Liverpool, and Edinburgh.

* Update *

Following the report launch and our event the Welsh Government has made a start announcing pilots with flexible and advance voting opportunities in next year’s local elections for young people in school and college in two local authorities, a school in Bridgend and Coleg Gwent in Blaenau Gwent. We will be watching with interest.

Dr Christine Huebner

Dr Christine Huebner is Early Career Research Fellow at Nottingham Trent University’s School of Social Sciences. Her research focuses on young people’s attitudes to and experiences of political engagement. She has researched youth citizenship, young people’s political identities, and the political views and behaviours of young people in Scotland, Wales, Germany, and Europe. Christine is a convenor of the Political Studies Association’s Young People’s Politics Specialist Group and a member of the academic advisory group to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Political Literacy.

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