Campaigners have warned that Scotland risks squandering the legacy of youth engagement in politics from the 2014 independence referendum amid a “looming registration disaster”.
A study by the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) has found the number of school leavers registered to vote has tumbled since 2013, with Scotland seeing the biggest falls despite 16-year-olds being able to vote in all Scottish elections.
The number of 16- and 17-year-olds on the electoral register in Scotland has fallen by 35 per cent over the past four years, with 63,471 so-called “attainers” registered in 2013 compared with just 41,561 last year. Voters of the same age in England and Wales fell by 25 per cent and 27 per cent in the same period, while the UK overall saw a 27 per cent drop.
Most of those who have dropped off registration lists would have been old enough to vote in next month’s general election, prompting campaigners to warn of a “time bomb” of democratic disengagement. It came as Prime Minister Theresa May ruled out any move to extend the franchise for general elections to include 16- and 17-year-olds.
Campaigners blame the sudden fall in new voters on a 2014 change to electoral law that means parents can no longer register their children as part of the household. The switch to Individual Electoral Registration (IER) also means universities no longer register eligible students automatically.
More deprived areas have seen the biggest falls in the number of young people registered, with Angus and Dundee West listed among the 20 worst-affected Westminster constituencies. The number of 16- and 17-year-olds registered in Angus dropped by 61 per cent in the three years to 2016, and by 59 per cent in Dundee West.
In Northern Ireland, which introduced IER in 2002, the number of 16- and 17-year-olds on the electoral roll halved between 2013 and 2016.
Campaigners said the failure to keep the youngest voters engaged risks turning them into non-voters for life and leaving them vulnerable to populist messages.
Willie Sullivan, the director of ERS Scotland, said too little had been invested in informing the public about the change to IER, and warned more effort was needed to make representative democracy relevant to young people.
Mr Sullivan said: “The engagement of young people around the referendum was fantastic. It was really heartening to see that, and the fact 16-year-olds had the vote was a big part of that. Because they aren’t allowed to vote in the general election, attainers won’t have that experience, and it means there’s less of a focus and a debate around that group.
“During an election campaign, there’s only enough time and space for certain frames to be allowed to develop. Around the referendum we had a frame around 16-year-olds being able to vote, and a debate that engaged young people about the future of the country. The debates about politics since then just haven’t been as engaging for them.”
He added: “The worrying thing is that this isn’t a cohort effect. When these people disengage, it’s not like they re-engage when they get older. They just don’t.”
ERS chief executive Katie Ghose said the results should “sound the alarm” over future participation in democracy and called on young people to register before the deadline of 11:59pm on 22 May.
She said: “There is a real risk that this election could be one where the registration time bomb goes off, leaving hundreds of thousands without a voice. The collapse in the number of 16- and 17-year-olds on the register in 2016 is a warning sign to anyone who cares about political engagement and young people’s stake in our democracy.
“All the evidence shows that voting is habitual – if you start young, you’ll vote for life.”
Ms Ghose said schools should set aside time to teach pupils about voting and get them registered to vote.
She added: “Moves towards automatic registration so that people have the chance to sign up when getting pensions, driving licences or moving home would go a long way to averting a looming registration disaster.”
Last night Mrs May told the BBC: “This is one of those questions where you have to draw a line. You have to pick a point at which you think it is right for the voting age to be. I continue to think it is right for it to be 18.”
But Liberal Democrat Tom Brake said Mrs May was “robbing young people of future opportunities” and putting election turnout at risk.