Grant Costello: It’s our future – let young people help to shape it
VOTES at 16 has become one of the most contested issues in the battle over the format of the 2014 referendum. Despite being an idea endorsed by leading politicians from four of the Holyrood parties, allowing young people to vote has moved from an issue of principle to a contest of political wills.
It shouldn’t be like this. Votes at 16 attracted cross-party support because the arguments are so strong. It shouldn’t now be treated as a political football between Unionists and Nationalists trying to score partisan goals.
The problem is some politicians are using the technical challenges of legislation as a shield behind which to hide. Yes there are some technical issues, but there is nothing a little cooperation wouldn’t resolve.
An enormous amount has been discussed about the difficulties of registering 16 and 17-year-olds. At the moment only those who will reach the current voting age of 18 within the lifetime of the electoral register, which runs from December to November each year, are allowed to register to vote. In practice, this means that at any particular time, most 16-year-olds are not allowed to be registered.
However, this could be solved by changing the voting age itself, or by legislating to allow the electoral registration of those under 16. Our research cannot find any data or child protection legislation which would prevent under-16s being registered. However, without this change the majority of 16-year-olds would be unable to vote in the referendum, even if the Scottish Government legislates for it.
The simplest way to change this would be for the Representation of the People Act to be amended at Westminster to lower the voting age. However, if this is not acceptable, then it would be possible for Scotland alone to benefit from this progressive change.
Alternatively, the UK Government could make one of the provisions of a Section 30 order the power to enable Electoral Registration Officers to accept registrations from all those who will be 16 or older on the day of the referendum. This would, of course, only allow 16-year-olds to vote in 2014, not in other elections.
The UK Government could pass over control of Scottish Elections to the Scottish Parliament, including control of the franchise, therefore allowing Holyrood to pass the change. This would allow 16-year-olds to vote in Scottish Parliament and local authority elections as well.
What that all means is the only obstacles to allowing young people to vote are political. It seems some politicians are keener to deny their opponents any political “victory” than do the right thing. It is time for those politicians to grow up.
In a modern world where young people are more engaged and involved than ever, where citizenship is such a key element of education, it is natural to lower the voting age. Sixteen-year-olds can marry, join the army or get a job, but have no say over tax, defence or employment. It is absurd that despite preparing for university or college, they have no say on whether they should pay tuition fees. At 17 they can buy a car, but not vote on what should happen to the road tax.
And that’s before we consider the benefits. Lowering the voting age would bring in 126,000 more citizens, educated about citizenship and informed about issues. It would allow those who feel government is irrelevant to have the chance to get involved directly. At a time when voter turnout is collapsing, it provides new citizens who want to vote, but are currently denied the opportunity.
Finally, to those who argue votes at 16 is fine, but not now, I would ask, when? How can it be argued young people should not be consulted on the direction forward? The independence referendum provides a once in a generation opportunity to vote on Scotland’s constitutional future. Why should young people whose entire working lives are ahead of them not have the chance to have their say? This is about the future of Scotland, and the young people who are Scotland’s future should have the right to have their say as well. If they are denied the opportunity by posturing politicians who are prepared to betray their own principles, it will not be forgotten. «
• Grant Costello is chair of the Scottish Youth Parliament
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Saturday 18 May 2013
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