So we believed the UK government should have followed Scotland’s – and soon Wales’ – example, allowing 16 and 17 year olds to vote in the EU referendum, and for future elections. Why?
One reason is, quite simply, the Scottish independence referendum showed when young people are given a say, they use it.
16 and 17 year olds threw themselves wholeheartedly into the Scottish referendum, with 75% voting and 97% saying they would vote in future elections. Even those opposed to extending the franchise for the referendum now agree that they participated with enthusiasm and made valuable contributions to the debate.
Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson MSP has said that her position changed to support an extension of the franchise after watching and debating in front of 16 and 17 year olds throughout the referendum – including stadiums and theatres packed full of school students eager to get involved. Moreover, research undertaken by Jan Eichhorn at the University of Edinburgh found that young people accessed more information from a wider variety of sources than any other age-group. And turnout was higher than among any youth age bracket.
So it was something of a generational injustice that many of the very same young people will get a vote in all Scottish elections, but didn’t get a vote on Britain’s membership of the EU. For ermine-robed Lords to be specifically allowed to vote but not the generation who helped bring such vitality to the Scottish Referendum was a bit of an insult to those young people, and democratic negligence at its worst.
Young Scots turned towards democracy and political action when they were given the chance. Up to that point young voters across the UK were turning their backs on formal party politics. While it wasn’t possible last week, the politicians who saw this should bear witness in Westminster and ensure 16 and 17 year olds are enfranchised not just in Scotland but across the country for future votes.
One thing is clear – Westminster shouldn’t let this become an issue which drives a wedge between the nations of the UK. 16 and 17 year olds deserve a vote in the EU referendum, not just in Scottish elections. And they can already vote in Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man.
In London, the youth were overt in expressing their frustration on their exclusion from the EU referendum vote, turning out in large numbers to protest as well as expressing their disappointment online, with the hashtag #notinmyname. One young Londoner, only 14, wrote a poignant letter to the London Evening Standard asking for the voting age to be lowered.
Ultimately, we need a three pronged approach to boosting youth engagement: extending the franchise, expanding voter registration, and educating young people about politics. All three go hand in hand, and would allay any worries of a lack of readiness to vote at 16. When given a voice in Scotland, young people educated themselves. A national programme of citizenship education would extend this even further.
Finally, we need a UK-wide franchise which is open, democratic and which sends a positive message to our young people that their opinions genuinely count – a genuinely ‘one nation’ franchise which engages our young people, instead of excluding them. While it’s a shame Westminster missed the opportunity for this kind of engagement in the EU referendum, last June’s ground-breaking Holyrood vote showed the way towards a fair franchise.
A version of this blog was first published here: http://electoral-reform.org.uk/blog/scotland-leads-way-votes-16#sthash.0yx7EGh2.dpuf