John Curtice: SNP may be opening the door to a new generation of voter apathy

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JUDGING by the rhetoric on both sides, the question of whether 16 or 17-year-olds should be allowed to vote in the independence referendum is one of the key flashpoints in the dispute between the Scottish and the UK governments.

Alex Salmond’s critics suspect the proposal that this group should have a vote is part of an attempt to “rig” the referendum in his favour. They reckon the SNP believe 16 and 17-year-olds are more likely to back independence.

In practice we know little about what 16 and 17-year-olds actually think about independence, and nothing at all about the views of those who will be 16 or 17 in autumn 2014 – that is today’s 13 and 14-year-olds. Nevertheless, it is highly unlikely that the SNP’s proposal would deliver them a significant advantage.

Most opinion polls do not interview those aged 16 or 17. However, because of Salmond’s proposal, one recent YouGov poll did. There were only 114 of them, so the poll figures are only indicative. But contrary to expectations, just 26 per cent of those 16 and 17-year-olds who did have a view and who said they would vote indicated they would back independence – well below the equivalent figure of 39 per cent for adults as a whole.

For further evidence we have to look at the views of those aged, say, 18 to 24, on the grounds that their outlook is likely to be similar to that of those who are only slightly younger. Even here we have to be careful because no individual poll contains very many such voters. So only if a number of polls consistently find that this age group is more supportive of independence can we presume that younger people are generally more likely to vote Yes.

While two of the four most recent polls that have reported how 18 to 24-year-olds would vote in an independence referendum have found they were more likely to vote Yes, the other two found the opposite. On this basis, we cannot presume that the opinions of younger people on independence are in fact particularly distinctive at all.

But whatever their views, 16 and 17-year-olds can only possibly make a difference if they actually cast a vote in the referendum. In practice, most would not do so.

Many young people lack the motivation to vote. The SNP gave the vote to 16 and 17-year-olds in two recent health board elections. Even amongst all voters, the turnout in those elections was abysmal – 23 per cent in Dumfries & Galloway and just 14 per cent in Fife. But amongst those aged 16 and 17 who managed to get their names on the register, the turnout was even worse – just 13 per cent and 7 per cent respectively.

Above all, under the rules for voter registration – which are decided by Westminster not Holyrood – the only people under 18 whose names should appear on the electoral roll are those who will be 18 before 1 December next comes around. As a result, the only additional young people to whom the SNP could conceivably give the vote in any referendum held in the autumn are those who will be 18 in a matter of weeks anyway – as a careful reading of last week’s consultation paper makes clear.

So, despite the rhetoric, in practice the dispute between the two governments is about a small number of voters who are relatively unlikely to vote and whose views may well not be particularly distinctive. That hardly sounds like sufficient reason for having a rumpus.

John Curtice is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University