What the UK Election Could Mean for Electoral Reform, Youth, and America

07/05/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I have been following the UK election pretty closely for an American and I am fascinated. The seeming collapse of Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the Labour Party, the resurgence of the Conservatives, and the meteoric rise of Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats after being a perennial also-ran. The drama of having a three-way race and all the implications and possibilities it creates have captivated me. For years third parties in this country have claimed that if they were just allowed to participate in the debates they'd finally get their message heard and be taken seriously by the voters. Nick Clegg's stunning victory in the first UK election debate certainly makes a strong case for it.

One trouble, though, is while some polls have the Liberal Democrats at 2nd in the popular vote (after the first debate some were even showing 1st) they almost certainly will be in third when it comes to the number of seats in the House of Commons. Britain, like the US, has a first-past-the-post election system. This system has always doomed the viability of a third party and part of the reason why electoral reform is a top priority for the Liberal Democrats.

What is exciting about this election is not the one-time presence of a vocal, active third party, but the possibility for lasting change to the British system. Proposals have been floated by all three parties for having an elected House of Lords, an initiative process, a way to recall unpopular or corrupt MPs, having a written constitution (only 220 years late guys), proportional representation, instant run-off voting (called the alternative vote there), fixed-term parliaments, reducing the size of parliament, and, what is most exciting for me, lowering the voting age to 16.

Both the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party have come out in favor (or perhaps "favour") of lowering the voting age to 16 in UK elections. Austria, parts of Germany & Switzerland, and even parts of the UK (Isle of Man, Jersey, and Guernsey) have already lowered their voting ages to 16. It is an issue that has been up for active discussion here in the United States as well, but has never really taken off.

It may be easy for us to ignore Austria or the tiny island of Guernsey, but if the United Kingdom, our long estranged then reconciled mother country, were to go 16 nationwide? We would have to sit up and pay attention. 16 and 17 year old high school students going to the polls and casting ballots that decide the fate of a nation? Yes, it could soon happen and it would actually be welcome news both for young people and for democracy.

Back in the days when we broke from our aforementioned mother country, our forefathers ranted and raved about taxation without representation. It wasn't just an effective slogan, it was a valid complaint about relations between the government and its citizens (or, I suppose, subjects). To take money out of someone's pocket without giving them a voice as to how much or what it is spent on is as tyrannical a concept today as it was in 1776. The trouble is both our countries continue to do it today. Young people have jobs and pay taxes (billions in fact) but have zero say about it.

Not only are young people paying billions in tax, they are also paying into Social Security, a system which may or may not be there when they get older. Most teens I've talked to would like to see something done about this faltering program, but our elected officials are pretty content to just keep things the way they are and not rock the boat. Of course their voters are all old enough that they'll get theirs, so what do they care about their kids and grandkids? Frankly the selfishness of our elders seems to be a defining characteristic of our politics nowadays. Will there be a planet left for our grand children? Who cares, SUVs for everyone! Will there be an economy left for our kids? Who cares, trillion dollar deficits for all!

When young people can't vote, they don't have a say in the policies that affect their lives. War, the economy, government spending, the environment, health care, and everything else will continue to hurt their interests if they don't have a voice. If they don't have a vote.

Critics say that young people lack the maturity, experience and intelligence necessary to vote. Considering the selfish, short-sighted policies our elders vote for time and time again, are we really going to be foolish enough to call this mature? Somewhere around a third of Democrats believe Bush was behind 9/11 and somewhere around a third of Republicans believe Obama isn't a US citizen. Are we really calling these voters intelligent?

Frankly with the rancorous debate that has crippled Washington for years, having some fresh eyes on the problems we face and fresh voters not wedded to biter partisanship like our elders, lowering the voting age can only make things better. I certainly am looking forward to trying and look forward to the United Kingdom leading the way.

The Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party both support lowering the voting age to 16 (as well as smaller parties in Scotland, Wales, and the Greens). Because of the electoral system it is unlikely the LibDems will have enough seats to form the government themselves, but it is looking increasingly likely there will be a "hung parliament' and no party will have a majority of the seats. If that is the case the Liberal Democrats could play kingmaker in this election, throwing their support to the Conservatives or Labour. If they go with Labour it seems almost certain that within the next 2-3 years we will see our friends across the pond lower their voting age to 16.

This is an exciting time for people on either side of the Atlantic and a watershed election for us all.