9 EXTENDING THE FRANCHISE TO INCLUDE 16 AND 17 YEAR OLDS
9.1 This chapter presents an analysis of respondents' comments about extending the franchise for the referendum to include 16 and 17 year olds. The consultation document proposed that eligibility to vote in the referendum would follow the precedent of the 1997 referendum on the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and be based on that for the Scottish Parliament and Scottish local government elections. This franchise closely reflects residency in Scotland.
9.2 The only change from the 1997 referendum franchise proposed in the consultation document was to reduce the voting age to 16.
Question 7: What are your views on extending the franchise to those aged 16 and 17 years who are eligible to be registered on the electoral register?
9.3 A total of 25,019 respondents made a comment at Question 7. Of these, 24,777 respondents made a comment specifically about the franchise being extended to 16 and 17 year olds. An analysis of these comments indicated that 56% broadly agreed with the proposal to extend the franchise to this group and 41% did not; the remaining respondents expressed mixed or unclear views. The balance of opinion on extending the franchise to those aged 16 and 17 who are eligible to be registered on the electoral register is discussed further at the end of this chapter.
Comments on extending the franchise to those aged 16 and 17 years
9.4 Those who favoured extending the franchise frequently pointed out that if 16 and 17 year olds are able, for example, to get married and join the army, they should also be allowed to vote at elections. The other reason repeatedly given for supporting the extension of the franchise was that it is younger people who will live with the outcome of the referendum vote and they should be entitled to have their say on what a future Scotland will look like. Less commonly, respondents suggested that:
- As potential tax payers, 16 and 17 year olds should be able to vote according to the basic principal of 'no taxation without representation'.
- Allowing young people aged 16 and 17 to vote in the referendum might promote their engagement with the political process more widely; this could help tackle some long standing issues around low turnout amongst younger people at elections.
9.5 Respondents who supported the extension of the franchise for the referendum frequently suggested that the franchise should be extended for all elections. At the same time, there were also some who felt the franchise for the referendum should only be extended if it were to be done for all elections.
9.6 The timing of any extension of the franchise was also raised - those raising this issue included both those who supported making a change for the referendum and those who did not. Respondents who supported the change sometimes suggested that the extension of the franchise is long overdue and that the current age limit is inappropriate in 21st century Scotland. Some respondents favoured the extension of the franchise in principle, but did not believe that the referendum was the right time at which to make such a change. The most frequently given reasons for this latter point were that:
- Introducing the change for the referendum (either in isolation or as the first occasion on which the franchise is extended) could undermine the credibility of the result, particularly if the vote is a close one.
- The franchise used for the referendum must be the same as that used for the election at which the current administration was given the mandate to call the referendum.
- This is a major constitutional change, with some respondents suggesting that either it would require a referendum vote in its own right or that it should only be introduced after an election at which the change was a manifesto commitment for the party voted into office.
- The change must apply to all elections across the whole of the UK and not just to Scotland.
- Given both the time constraints and certain powers being reserved to the UK Parliament, it may not be possible to ensure that all 16 and 17 year olds are registered to vote by 2014. If that were to be the case, it would not be fair or democratic to include only some 16 and 17 year olds.
9.7 Some respondents objected to 16 and 17 year olds being given the vote under any circumstances. This group included those who suggested that the proposed change was politically motivated - with the current administration believing that 16 and 17 year olds will be more likely to vote for independence than the electorate overall. However, other reasons given by this group for opposing the change related more to their views about 16 and 17 year olds specifically:
- It was felt that 16 and 17 year olds are simply not mature enough and have insufficient life experience to make such an important decision. This position was often associated with concerns that young people in this age group would be too easily influenced by their peers, parents or teachers.
- It was also argued that society does not consider 16 and 17 year olds responsible enough to buy alcohol, and the Scottish Government has recently decided they should not be able to buy cigarettes. Given these restrictions, these respondents sometimes questioned why society would consider them mature enough to vote. A few respondents also suggested that, far from citing being able to get married or join the army as a reason for allowing 16 and 17 year olds the vote, the more appropriate policy response would be to increase the minimum age for such important life decisions to 18 years.
The views of youth organisations
9.8 The consultation received responses from 11 organisations or groups which are either run by, or work with, young people. Ten of these respondents were in favour of allowing 16 and 17 year olds to vote in the referendum and one group reported that its membership had mixed views.
9.9 The reasons given for supporting the change were broadly in line with those given by other respondents and included:
- Society needs to engage young people in relation to policy issues which affect them and one of the best ways of doing this would be to allow them to have their say. Including young people in the franchise now and at future elections would send a message that the government and decision-makers take the views of young people seriously.
- In Scotland, adult rights and duties are acquired at 16 including: to work, sign contracts, pay tax; 16 year olds can leave school, earn a wage, marry without parental consent, drive a car and serve in the armed forces.
9.10 Other points raised by respondents included:
- Lowering the voting age to 16 is the stated party policy of three of the five parties represented within the Scottish parliament (SNP, Scottish Liberal Democrats and Scottish Greens).
- There are many examples of other regions, including the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey, and a range of European countries in which the voting age has been lowered to 16 years. Respondents also cited recent elections for NHS Boards in Scotland which included a vote for 16 and 17 year olds on a pilot basis.
- All those who would be 16 or older on the day of the referendum should be allowed to register to vote. The Scottish and UK Governments should work together to grant all 16 and 17 year olds the right to vote in the referendum and at all subsequent votes.
Balance of opinion on extending the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds
9.11 As noted at paragraph 9.3 above, 24,777 respondents made a comment about extending the franchise to include 16 and 17 year olds. Of these, 56% agreed with extending the franchise, and 41% disagreed. Only 2% of respondents expressed mixed or unclear views on this issue, and those who agreed and disagreed generally expressed definite agreement or disagreement. Annex 3 provides details of how responses were classified in relation to the extent of their agreement or disagreement.
9.12 The proportion of respondents who agreed or disagreed with the proposal to extend the franchise varied considerably between different types of respondents (see Table A3.5 in Annex 3). Among individual respondents, opinion was relatively balanced with 48% of individuals supporting the change and 50% advocating that the current age limits should be retained. However, among organisation / group respondents, 60% were in favour of the proposed change and only 32% were not.
9.13 Other points to note are that:
- Overall, around 3% of respondents expressed conditional agreement with the idea of extending the franchise. In general, these were often people who were in favour of extending the franchise as long as the extension applied to all elections and not just to the referendum.
- The SNP campaign made a statement expressing definite agreement with extending voter eligibility to include 16 and 17 year olds and non-standard campaign responses were also very heavily weighted in favour of the proposal to extend the franchise to this group. The Scottish Labour campaign did not provide any comment on this issue. Responses from the Lanarkshire campaign were classified as agreeing conditionally, as this campaign expressed support for the extension of the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds if the law is changed for all elections.
Email: Alison Stout