John Curtice: Young voters are unlikely to tip the scales either way next year

GIVING 16- and 17-year-olds a vote in the independence referendum will certainly be a historic move. But will it make any difference?

If the registration procedures unveiled yesterday prove effective there should be around 110,000 names on the special register of young voters the Scottish Government is proposing.

There are currently four million people registered to vote, so Scotland’s youngest voters should constitute a little over 2.5 per cent, or one in 40, of all those eligible to vote on referendum day.

Those numbers alone suggest that the chances that 16- and 17-year-olds will swing the referendum for the SNP must be rather low.

Then we have to bear in mind they may well be less likely to vote than their elders.


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In the 2010 health board elections in Dumfries and Fife, 16- and 17-year-olds were only half as likely to vote as those aged 18 and older. According to Scottish Social Attitudes much the same was true of 18-24-year-olds in the last Holyrood election.

Meanwhile, there is little evidence that 16- and 17-year-olds back independence particularly heavily. One poll in January that included 16- and 17-year-olds in its sample reported doing so made no difference to its results.

A somewhat less scientific,
but much larger exercise conducted last summer in 24 Scottish schools among those who will be 16 or 17 next year found a majority of more than two to one against independence.

Meanwhile, insofar as we can extrapolate from the views of those currently aged 18-24, they usually appear somewhat more likely to back independence, but not dramatically so.


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Even if we assume 16- and 17-year-olds vote as much as everyone else, and in so doing as many as 60 per cent back of them independence, at least 49.7 per cent of the rest of the population would have to vote Yes before Scotland’s youngest voters would tip the scales.

And at the moment at least, the referendum looks nothing like as close as that.

• John Curtice is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University.