Tom Peterkin: Allowing 16 and 17-year-olds to vote is a risky strategy

Tom Peterkin
Tom Peterkin
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HOW ironic that the unelected House of Lords should get into a bit of a stushie about allowing 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in the Scottish referendum.

Alex Salmond’s bid to increase the size of the electorate was described by Lord Forsyth as a “huge constitutional step”. Forsyth’s argument is that such a step should not be taken without there being proper consultation across the UK as a whole.

According to the former Scottish Secretary, it is “inconceivable” to give 16 and 17-year-olds the vote in a Scottish referendum and then deny them it in a general election or Scottish election.

Forsyth has a principled point, but his successors in the Conservative Government appear far more relaxed about this than he is. Giving the SNP the power to extend the franchise for a one-off election such as the referendum has been seen as a key concession in the referendum negotiations with the Scottish Governments.

In return, it would appear that the UK is going to have its wish for a single Yes/No question on independence. The apparent indifference on the teenage voting issue coming from the Scotland Office has its roots in pragmatism.

Government ministers simply do not believe that taking the vote into classrooms will have an effect on the outcome of the referendum, despite suggestions that a youthful electorate would be more inclined to vote for independence.

David Mundell said as much at the weekend when he told me that the “polling” so far suggested that there was “not overwhelming” support for independence amongst the 16 and 17-year-old age group.

Furthermore, Mundell said that actually ensuring that all 16 and 17-year-olds were able to use their vote would be a challenge that was fraught with difficulties.

Under the terms of the Section 30 Order that will transfer control over the referendum from Westminster to Holyrood, it will be up to the Scottish Parliament to extend the voting franchise to the lower age group.

But as Mundell and others, including the Electoral Commission, have pointed out it is still unclear how or even if the Scottish Government will make sure that the vote will be extended to all those over the age of 16 in autumn 2014.

Needless to say, the Scottish Government is keeping its cards close to its chest on this as the ‘i’s are dotted before Monday’s big meeting between Salmond and David Cameron.

But so far, all we have been told is that attainers – those who can currently join the electoral roll in anticipation of their 18th birthdays – are to be given the vote in 2014.

However, under existing law teenagers are only eligible to be attainers if they become 18 on or before 30 November in the following year. That would leave an awful lot of disappointed 16-year-olds, who would have the same amount of say over the Scottish referendum as they currently do over the House of Lords.