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Want to Fix Politics? Let 16-Year-Olds Vote

Scotland lowered the voting age for the first independence referendum in 2014. They had the right idea.

by Assa Samaké-Roman
11 December 2019, 1:34pm

Protesters on a Scottish independence march in 2018. Photo by Steven Scott Taylor/Alamy Live News

Picture yourself at 16 or 17. What did your teenage self worry about? School, work, relationships, general angst… Politics and elections probably sat at the bottom of your list, as most 16 and 17-year-olds in the UK wouldn’t be allowed to vote anyway – except in Scotland and very recently in Wales.

Expecting people aged 16 and over to take part in Scottish elections is now a normal feature of Scotland’s democracy, and the vast majority of voters believe it’s only right. Soon, anyone legally resident in Scotland, irrespective of where they came from, could also be allowed to vote.

It hasn’t always been the case, explains Dr Jan Eichhorn, a senior lecturer in Social Policy at the University of Edinburgh, and Research Director of the think tank d|part based in Berlin. “Initially, there was opposition to vote at 16. In 2011, only about 30 percent of the population was in favour, and that’s about the same level UK-wide. Now it’s close to 60 percent. So there’s been a big shift, not only among young people, but in the general population.”

Even teenagers initially weren’t too keen. The first franchise extension took place was for the 2014 independence referendum, which saw Scotland vote to stay in the UK. “I took the responsibility of voting very seriously, although at the time, interestingly, I wasn’t pro myself getting the vote,” says Emma Roddick from Inverness, who was 17 when she cast her ballot in September that year. “I thought it was something that adults do. But I look back now, how I was scared about getting the vote because of the massive responsibility, and I realise this is why I went out and did all that research and why I got involved in politics, and why I am now a councillor [for the SNP].”

A year later, the Scottish Parliament voted unanimously to extend the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds in all Scottish elections, after years of SNP support. “The SNP were pushing for it,” said Jan Eichhorn. “There were two reasons. First, because they assumed young people would be more pro-independence, which they weren’t initially. Second, this idea of Scotland appearing as a modern, forward-looking country.” Even the Scottish Conservatives, who opposed the extension of the franchise, got on board in 2015, largely because the fears about lowering the voting age didn’t manifest.

Lowering the voting age brought a whole new generation into politics and civic participation, especially those who didn’t have it in their lives, and from working-class backgrounds. “It’s not just about giving people the right to put a cross in a box,” says Emma, “it’s about telling them that they have a voice and inviting them in the political arena they used to be excluded from. “

Many took the responsibility seriously, getting absorbed by the complexities of issues such as currency, membership of the EU and defence, as if they would have to appear in a Question Time panel on any given day during the campaign. That daunting scenario did not materialise. However, debating at school definitely fostered young voters’ political awakening.

As 2014 came around, Ewan Lewis, originally from Aberdeenshire and now a third-year maths student at the University of Stirling, was about 17. “Our school was invited to go to the debate competition in Aberdeen for the STV School Referendum Debate,” he remembers. “It was really interesting to dive into the issue of how Scotland could become an independent country and what it would take to become an independent country.”

Antonia Uri, 17 years old in 2014 and now a journalism student in Aberdeen, had the same kind of experience. “I was involved in the Aberdeenshire schools’ referendum, so we had a mock referendum in which schoolkids could vote. I was delegated by my teacher to be the head of the Yes campaign.”

So it turns out young people do care about politics when they are asked their views, and it makes their participation in politics or activism, such as demonstrations, protests and signing petitions, more likely. “Voting at 16 can have a positive effect, in particular when it’s linked to strong civic education in schools,” Jan Eichhorn says. “In Scotland there’s a much better approach to civic education than in the rest of the UK: the vast majority of students here have at least a couple of years of Modern Studies. And it’s not just about how the law is made; it’s much more engaging.”

However, in Scotland, the impact of lowering the voting age could be greater. One of the main reasons it isn’t, according Eichhorn, is that political civic education is up to the 32 Scottish local authorities. Some of them were allowed to debate the referendum in class, but others banned party politics entirely.

Another assumption made about lowering the voting age is that 16 and 17-year-olds don’t vote anyway. Voters aged 18 to 24 have the worst turnout in elections, so is there any reason why it wouldn’t be even worse for youngers voters?

“Sixteen and 17-year-olds actually have a consistently better voter turnout than 18 to 24-year-olds. In Scotland, the best estimate we have is that 16 and 17-year-olds had a 75 percent turnout in 2014. It’s still lower than the national average, but 18 to 24-year-olds were under 60 percent,” says Eichhorn. Data shows that if your first vote happens when you’re still in school, still living with your parents, you’re more likely to go to the polls.

What about those who won’t engage and vote like their parents? Surely, they shouldn’t be allowed to vote, opponents say. “If that’s what people think, then they don’t have much faith in our politicians’ ability to engage with young people, and in our education system’s ability to educate young people about politics,” according to Antonia Uri.

Again, research dismisses this concern, as 40 percent of 16 and 17-year-olds in 2014 held a different view from their parents on independence. Interestingly, who influences whose votes is a two-way street. “We have evidence that young people affect their parents,” says Eichhorn, “especially when they have civic education at school and discuss political issues in the classroom.”

The evidence stacks up: there aren’t many arguments left against lowering the voting age everywhere in the UK, especially because it confuses young voters. “When do you become an adult? On some issues it’s when you’re 16, and sometimes it’s when you’re 18. It’s confusing. I understand that on these grounds, some people are saying, ‘Let’s figure it out first, and think about what citizenship means.’ But I think this question is actually an opportunity to redefine citizenship in a more positive manner”, Eichhorn argues.

For Emma Roddick, it would only make sense to extend it to the rest of the UK. “It’s our future. If you’re old enough to join the military and leave school, you should have a right to choose who’s representing you. “

In the end, this is a debate about representation: who gets to speak and which issues are raised. Lowering the voting age in Scotland has changed the conversation. It’s not just about young people, it’s also with young people. “It has an impact not only on young people but also on the way the wider public sees them,” Emma says. “It’s way more positive now. The media started engaging differently as well.”

Labour, the Lib Dems, the Greens and the SNP have made manifesto pledges to give the vote to 16 and 17-year-olds in all UK elections. Although the Scottish Tories and some English Conservatives support it, they remain in minority in parties that still widely oppose it. Will it change anytime soon? It all hangs on the election results this Thursday.

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