Young Voters and the Referendum on Scottish Independence

Susan Batchelor (@SusanABatchelor)

The Referendum on Scottish Independence

Today Scotland is holding a Referendum on whether to become an independent country or to remain part of the United Kingdom. With the vote extended to 16- and 17-year-olds, it will be the first time that under-18s in the UK have had the franchise on a major matter of state. Young people aged 16 to 24 make up approximately 12 per cent of the Scottish population. With polls indicating a close result, votes cast by young people may make all the difference.

Engaging young voters

Concerns about the decline of young people’s political participation have been a common feature of almost all Western democracies in recent years. In the UK, voter turnout amongst 18- to 24-year-olds has been declining since 1997, dipping to its lowest point in 2005, at 38.2%. As a result, there have been significant efforts to engage young people in the run up to the Scottish Referendum – from schools, colleges and universities, youth groups and other civic and voluntary organisations, as well as the campaigns themselves. The Scottish Youth Parliament, for example, have facilitated impartial ‘democracy days’ across the country, encouraging young people to debate key issues and start discussing them with family and friends.

Figure 1: Yes Campaign takes lead in Scottish Referendum – with likes and selfies

Salmond selfie

Social media has also played an important role in engaging young voters. In the period 1st August to 8th September 2014, Facebook saw more than 10 million interactions (posts, comments, and likes) concerning the Referendum, including over 8.5 million interactions in Scotland. According to Elizabeth Linder, Facebook’s politics and government specialist, ‘Studies show that when people see their Facebook friends talking about voting, they are more likely to vote themselves’. Given that young people aged 16 to 25 years are the most active group on social media, it is no surprise that both the Yes Scotland and Better Together campaigns have utilized the platform to reach out to young voters.

Increased interest and participation

The available evidence suggests that these endeavours have largely been successful, prompting greater interest in and engagement with politics amongst young people in Scotland. A record 4.29 million people have registered to vote in the Referendum, with those aged 16 and 17 making up more than 100,000 of this figure. In other words, 97% of the total number of people eligible has registered to vote. According to The Scotsman newspaper, the most recent polls indicate that 79% of 16- to 24-year-olds living in Scotland are certain to vote. Political interest is also high. According to research published by the University of Edinburgh in June of this year, 13% of 14- to 17-year-olds living in Scotland report ‘a great deal’ of interest in politics, with a further 46% saying that the are interested ‘to some extent’. Only 9% of 14- to 17-year-olds said that they had no interest in politics (compared to 13% of adults in the 2013 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey).

Figure 2: Some of Scotland’s young voters

Young voters

Issues that are important for young people as they consider what way to vote include education and employment, as opposed to national identity and associated emotions. According to the University of Edinburgh research, younger Scots tend to have a much more multi-layered sense of their own identity than those aged 18 years and over: just 12% of 14- to 17-year-olds described themselves as ‘Scottish, not British’, compared to 35% of 18- to 24-year-olds and 23% of adults as a whole. Forty-five per cent said they regarded themselves as equally Scottish and British, far above the 22% of 18- to 24-year-olds or 30% of all adults. More significant, are concerns relating to education and the economy, including currency, welfare and pensions. The opportunity to protect free education is a major concern, prompting some young people to back independence. Concern for jobs, on the other hand, combined with worries over financial security are pushing others towards a no vote.

Future prospects

Whatever the result of today’s Referendum on Independence, the real success of the campaign has been the engagement of young voters. Hundreds of thousands of young people across Scotland are now geared up to participate in a historic moment of self-determination. We need to harness this renewed interest and enthusiasm for future elections.


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