Scottish 16 and 17 year olds can vote whilst their peers across the border are still disenfranchised.
A precedent was set by the Scottish independence referendum that when a vote is being held on an issue of great constitutional importance, 16 and 17 year-olds should have their say too. Yet many 16 and 17 year-olds who had a vote in the independence referendum were denied a voice in electing their local MP in June; they and their peers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland were then denied one in the EU referendum.
Evidence from the Scottish independence referendum, substantiated by research from Austria and Norway, shows – aided by the encouragement of families and schools – 16 and 17 year-olds have higher rates of turnout than 18 to 24 year-olds.
Whilst there is no silver bullet for improving citizen participation in formal politics and no singular cause, the way young people come into contact with politics in their formative years is crucially important for the future of representative democracy.
If young people are registered early and get into the habit of voting, we will see lasting improvements in turnout. If they vote early in life, they keep voting in later life.
The next generation of voters are the first to have received citizenship education, yet are being denied their full rights as citizens. Giving 16 and 17 year olds the right to vote would allow a seamless transition from learning about voting, elections and democracy to putting such knowledge into practice.
The first generation of voters who have needed to study our democracy are denied the right to use this knowledge in a General Election for at least two further years, up to a possible seven years. And that’s a missed opportunity.
The Electoral Reform Society is a founding member of the Votes at 16 coalition. Votes at 16 are not just supported by the SNP, Labour, Liberal Democrats and the Greens – but also by the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson who says she is a “fully paid-up member of the ‘votes at 16’ club now”.
Following the success of the Scottish independence referendum, the Scottish Parliament unanimously voted to give 16 and 17 year olds the vote in Scottish parliamentary and local elections. The National Assembly for Wales will also have powers over the voting age for Welsh Assembly and local government elections devolved to it later this Parliament. It would be a shame if something as fundamental as the franchise itself were another wedge driven between the nations of the United Kingdom.
16 and 17 year olds in the Isle of Man, Jersey, Guernsey, Brazil and Austria already have the vote. They can also vote in some elections in Germany, Malta and Norway.