Scottish independence: Young vote must be promoted

Sixteen- and 17-year-olds will be allowed to vote for the first time in the autumn of 2014. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Sixteen- and 17-year-olds will be allowed to vote for the first time in the autumn of 2014. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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Election chiefs say they must be given a legal duty to encourage young people to vote in next year’s independence referendum amid concerns that 16- and 17-year-olds may not take part.

Teenagers in this age group will be handed the vote for the first time when Scots go to the polls for the country’s biggest decision in 300 years in the ­autumn of 2014.

But changes are now being called for in the legislation to stage the referendum by the Society of Local Authority Lawyers and Administrators in Scotland (Solar) which will be responsible for organising the count at local level.

The Electoral Commission, the national watchdog body, has currently been landed with a broad role in promoting the vote next year, but this has left a “lack of clarity” on how this would work locally.

Other jurisdictions such as Jersey and Guernsey, which lowered the voting age to 16, have embarked on major promotional campaigns in schools to get youngsters interested in voting and familiarise them with the process.

But a pilot scheme to extend the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds in health board elections in Scotland failed to attract much interest and there are now growing concerns about “awareness raising”.

Gordon Blair, who chairs the elections working group at Solar and is seen as is one of Scotland’s foremost election experts, says the concerns are based on the draft referendum bill published a year ago.

“That does not give the power to the chief counting officer or local counting officers for the independence referendum to encourage participation in the referendum,” he said.

Such a provision was included in the AV referendum in 2011.

“We have this power to encourage participation in the electoral process for all elections, but of course a referendum is not an election,” he added.

“So the gap in the draft referendum bill, as originally published, is that we don’t have a similar power to encourage participation in this independence referendum. That’s a clarification I’m seeking because my council and other councils have gone into schools usually at S6 to try to capture what we call the ­attainers.

“This is the group who may be under 18, but will have turned and be eligible to vote by the time of the next election. This role is viewed as being particularly crucial for the independence referendum when 16- and 17-year-olds will be getting the vote for the first time and many may be unsure about the process of registering to vote.

“The difficulty is if we don’t have this power for this independence referendum, where does that leave us? That’s the clarification I’m seeking.”

Solar wants to be given the same power it currently has to raise awareness among youngsters on an unbiased manner.

“We can go into schools at the moment for elections on a party neutral basis and encourage participation – get young people registered to vote in elections,” Mr Blair added.

“Is it not the same for this referendum – or is this referendum going to be treated as a policy matter differently?”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “In general, both the Electoral Commission and returning officers have a duty to promote participation in any Scottish electoral event.”