(c) Image PA
We all remember meeting or hearing of 16 and 17-year-olds who were very enthusiastic, engaged and, often, well-informed at the time of the Scottish Referendum in 2014. Despite that, there is still some hostility toward allowing further participation by this group in other electoral processes. Our long-standing knowledge of the low turnout and apparent lack of knowledge of political affairs of the 18-24-year-old group has sometimes led critics to oppose the emancipation of the younger group on similar grounds. However, recent research by the London School of Economics is strong evidence that this negative view is incorrect.
In the review preceding their own survey, the LSE authors point out:
- We already know that the younger first-time voters are, the greater their participation. This effect is observed in multiple studies and is strongly pronounced for 16- to 17-year-olds.
- It could also be observed in the Scottish context where the above-cited participation rate for these ages (75%) was much higher than the estimate for 18-24-year-olds (54%).
- Voting earlier, while still being in school and more likely to live at home, is likely to increase voter participation, not reduce it.
The authors also tackle the popular view that the majority of the adult population are against 16-year-olds having the vote. While it is true that only 33% were in favour before the Scottish Referendum, this has now doubled to 60%, in Scotland, after people actually witnessed the frankly wonderful enthusiasm, intelligence and knowledge of that group, face-to-face or on TV, in the months leading up to the Scottish Referendum. The researchers state:
‘For the Scottish context, we then find, for example, that the levels of political interest in the independence referendum amongst those younger than 18 was very similar to that of the adult population overall.’
In 2015, the LSE researchers interviewed 16 and 17-year-olds across the UK to see:
‘whether levels of political engagement and political attitudes systematically differed for 16- and 17-year-old Scots compared to their peers in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.’
‘that the newly enfranchised young people in Scotland indeed show substantially higher levels of engagement with representative democracy (through voting) as well as other forms of political participation (such as signing petitions and taking part in demonstrations); and they engage with a greater range of information sources about politics and reflect greater levels of political efficacy.’
‘The findings indeed suggest that earlier enfranchisement, together with other factors (such as the referendum, civic education, and parental socialisation) had a positive impact on young people in Scotland. Further research will be required to examine whether these positive effects are long-lasting. Evidence from Austria – where the voting age was lowered in 2007 and where similar first-time boosts could be observed – is encouraging, as later observations still confirmed the initial patterns.’
The researchers may have missed the effects of the fairly recent introduction of Scottish affairs into the teaching of National 4/5 and Higher History, and Modern Studies, and the new Politics Higher. That Scottish history or political affairs were not taught in any serious manner until quite recently would, of course, not have occurred to researchers based in England. Perhaps, more obvious, it seems strange that the researchers did not appear to have investigated the impact of social media especially the huge number of Facebook groups informing, debating and organising, especially the Yes campaign. Much research had already been done into the role of Facebook in the Arab Spring by this time, so we might have expected it to be an obvious area for investigation.
Anyway, as I hope you are, I’m much encouraged by these findings. There were 100 000 of these young voters in 2014. By 2018, a further 200 000 will be in the frame and we know they’re more likely to be Yes than No voters.