Forget votes at 16 for now - alternative reforms are more important

The votes at 16 debate has reared its head once more in recent days, resultant of proposals in Wales.

Earlier this week, Welsh Local Government Secretary Alun Davies announced a number of reforms to Welsh democracy, according to the BBC. The big story to emerge from this was the proposal to introduce votes at 16 for local authority elections.

While the wind is certainly blowing in a direction favourable to votes at 16 advocates, with most major parties bar the Conservatives and UKIP supporting a change, the votes at 16 debate is probably the wrong thing to focus on.

As part of my role at think-tank and campaign-group TalkPolitics, I recently outlined our position that if votes at 16 is to happen then large-scale, obligatory political education needs to be introduced. In fact, regardless of whether the franchise is extended, significant improvements to political education in schools should be made. Without an understanding of basic political processes, it is no wonder that young people - and the wider population - are turned off politics.

Additionally, while votes at 16 grabbed the headlines, Davies’ proposals contained some other revitalising reforms which deserve exploration.

According to Wales Online, the proposals include automatic voter registration, which would make sure that no one is unable to vote due to not being registered, thus making democracy more accessible, and the opportunity for voting in non-traditional places, which could make voting easier for many. The BBC also reports that the proposals introduce the possibility for voting to take place on multiple days, which could maximise turnout.

Additionally, according to the Electoral Reform Society, the proposals would allow councils the option to switch to using the Single Transferable Vote rather than the current FPTP system.

Votes at 16 is an interesting idea and could help young people get more interested in politics, but political education, as well as several other reforms being set to be explored in Wales are more interesting and probably more transformative. While making STV optional is not good enough, it is a step in the right direction to building a fairer democracy. Furthermore, automatic voter registration would ensure that no one falls off the electoral register.

As the Electoral Reform Society's Jessica Blair writes"Wales is leading the way on democratic reform. The Prime Minister should take note."