16 & 17 Year Olds & Turnout at the Independence Referendum

Saltire and Union Jack flags


It’s been quite a year for us here in Scotland. The dust is now beginning to settle on the Independence Referendum (for some, anyway). Although political engagement appears to be continuing across the country in a variety of forms, the referendum itself has slowly began to recede as the year ends and the General Election begins to loom on the horizon. Already tactics are being discussed on how to vote at the General Election with talk of Yes and No alliances being built, indicating that, for some, the referendum will continue to shape voting behaviour. The tribalism of the referendum looks set to continue into the future then, for a sizeable minority.

How does the lay of the land look for our 16 and 17 year olds? It is looking increasingly likely that the franchise is going to be extended. It seems that all parties are beginning to warm to the recommendation of The Smith Commission to give under 18s the vote from 2016 – in time for the next Scottish Parliament elections. It appears that the engagement of young people during the referendum has further eroded barriers resisting their enfranchisement.

This is great news – but comes with a warning. Simply giving young people the vote will not solve the issues of young people’s political engagement (or lack of). Whilst I may not agree with Mo Metcalf-Fisher in his article for the Commentator, we do agree on one thing – that the importance of schools in the renewal of democracy cannot be understated. If we are going to extend the franchise to young people then it has to come along with a dramatic re-think of how we educate our young folks about politics. I’m not going to go into what schools can do having written at length elsewhere on the blog regarding this. The referendum gave unprecedented access to young people to get involved with the process* (besides giving them the vote) and I have reservations that a General Election or Scottish Parliament election will do the same. The referendum spoke to young people in a way that other elections do not – it engaged with an issue of importance to them, whereas business-as-usual politics continues to ignore young people and issues important to them. School can play a role in addressing this but our politics and politicians have an even larger role to play.

To end the year on a positive, The Electoral Commission released its report on how the referendum was conducted with voters stating that they were largely satisfied with how the exercise was handled. The report gives us our first reliable snapshot of the level of turnout of 16 and 17yr olds. As the sample is only 112 we can’t draw any definitive answers but it provides an interesting clue as to the broader picture. The ICM survey suggests that turnout amongst this age cohort (there were 109,593 young people registered to vote in this age group) was 75% compared to 54% amongst 18-24yr olds. The figures are, as expected, lower than for their older contemporaries (85% for 35-54yr olds and a whopping 92% for those 55 and over). If this is correct, that three-quarters of 16 and 17yr olds voted, it is a spectacular success and vindicates the decision to extend the vote to our young people.

As part of the survey, ICM also asked respondents if they supported the enfranchisement of 16 and 17yr olds and 60% stated they would support such a move. It appears that there is a momentum right now to give young people the vote. Of additional interest the study found that 97% of the 16 and 17yr olds who voted intend to vote again in future elections. This echoes other research which suggests that early engagement in voting can leave a ‘participative footprint’ – involvement in an election can be ‘habit forming‘ and can act as a catalyst for future participation. It’ll take more than simply giving young people the right to vote to get them to turn out but giving them that choice is a welcome step forward, if indeed it does come. It’s up to our elected officials to ensure that they engage with the issues that are important to young people, otherwise they may switch off again. And who would blame them?


*When I say process, I mean that the young people could actively engage in politics and many did so – canvassing, leafleting, attending debates both in and out of school and so forth.

(Image from littlegatepublishing.com)

Categories: Politics, Youth Participation

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