Most days after school, Sean Garcais and his friends ride their BMX bikes in North Kelvin Meadow, a patch of scrub land in the west end of Glasgow. They build ramps, try new tricks. Sean and his friends are like 15- or 16-year-olds anywhere else in the world, but with one difference: Next year they will all have a say on the future of their country’s independence.
Under the Edinburgh Agreement, which sets out the terms for Scotland‘s independence referendum in 2014, 16- and 17-year-olds will have a vote. The legislation that will enable them to vote in a United Kingdom plebiscite for the first time ever is currently making its way through the Scottish Parliament atHolyrood, in Edinburgh.
Today, the Referendum Bill Committee will report to Parliament, and a debate in the chamber is scheduled for the following week. But the lowered voting age is almost certain to be passed into legislation later this summer. It is longstanding policy of the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP), which dominates Scotland’s devolved Parliament.
The SNP has said that it backs lowering the voting age in order to enfranchise more youth in a decision that will affect the rest of their lives. “No one has a bigger stake in the future of our country than today’s young people,” said the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s deputy first minister, when the bill was introduced in March. “And it is only right that they are able to have a say in the most important vote to be held in Scotland for three centuries.”
But some see a political interest in the SNP’s support.
Politicians only gave young people a vote “because they think we will be more radical,” says Sean, who is a student at Glasgow’s Hillhead High School. “I’m not sure about it myself. I might vote yes, I might vote no.”
Some of his friends share his ambivalence. Others say they are firmly in favor of independence for Scotland. But when asked if they will actually vote in the referendum, the youthful bikers respond with cacophony of “ayes” and “yeses.”
Annie McFadyen firmly supports the proposal. “I think we should get a chance to vote – we can drive a car, get married, but aren’t allowed to vote.” The 15-year-old Glaswegian is in little doubt about how she will vote. “I’m for it. I’ve got strong views on the whole topic but I’ve got friends who aren’t bothered either way,” she says.
This is an important change, says James Mitchell, professor of politics at the University of Edinburgh. “The big issue rather than the election is how we engage with this new generation that is coming through that don’t read newspapers.”
Access to information will be an important factor on how 16- and 17-year-olds vote, agrees Isla MacLennan, head of modern studies at St. Margaret’s Academy, Livingston, a school of around 1,200 students in central Scotland.
“Young people, generally, are more likely to be nationalist. It comes from a place of Scottish pride and the Tartan Army [the supporters of the Scottish national soccer team],” she says. But that nationalism “may be not that thought out. That’s what we are trying to do in our classes,” she says.
Recently, Ms. MacLennan staged a debate and a mock vote in class. Before the debate, a majority of students said they were against independence. After the discussion, 60 percent voted in favor.
But Professor Mitchell rejects the popular assumption that young people are likely to be more nationalistic, and more likely to vote for independence. “It will be very interesting to see if 16- and 17-year-olds vote differently, but I don’t think that will happen,” he says.
And even if they do swing one way more than the other, Mitchell does not expect the youth vote to be a difference-maker. The age bracket makes up around 3 percent of the Scottish electorate. With such small numbers, young people are unlikely to be a decisive constituency in 2014. Just getting them to the ballot box could prove a challenge.
“Young people are less likely to vote than older people, so I’d expect turnout among young people to be low,” says Mitchell.
An eye toward the future
Among the advocates of votes at age 16 are the Scottish Youth Parliament, a non-party political assembly that meets three times at the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood to discuss issues that affect young people and suggest solutions.
In the 2009 Scottish Youth Parliament elections, 65 percent of the 32,000 14- to 25-year-olds across Scotland who voted backed a proposal to extend the vote to 16-year-olds.
Allowing young people to vote “will give the referendum, whatever the result, more credibility,” says Kyle Thornton, vice chair of the Scottish Youth Parliament. “For 16- and 17-year-olds this is something that will change their entire life – the effect of it will be seen 30, 40, 50 years from now.”
One factor that may sway the minds of young voters is the promise of greater participation for 16- and 17-year-olds in an independent Scotland.
“If Scotland votes yes, I find it inconceivable that we won’t have votes at 16 and 17 in Scotland after that,” Mitchell says.
“But it is also possible that many of the people who think that votes at 16 will bring the sky down will wake up the morning after a ‘no’ vote and say, ‘maybe it’s not such a bad idea. We gave votes to women, votes to the working class, maybe we should give votes at 16.'”