Five months after Scotland's independence referendum, it's clear that the experiment of allowing sixteen and seventeen year olds to vote has been judged a success. The Smith Commission has recommended that the franchise should be extended permanently for Scottish parliament elections by 2016, and south of the border the policy seems to have gained much traction too.
The arguments put forth by those who want to see this change are convincing. The campaign 'Votes at 16' outlines that come your sixteenth birthday, it is your legal right to leave school, marry, join the army and pay taxes, yet you have no ability to vote for who will control these matters. Extending the franchise for the whole of the UK would bring over 1.5million new voters into the fray: a sizeable number that could have a measured impact. Indeed, last week the House of Lords criticized Holyrood's decision to extend the franchise to 16- and 17-year-olds, expressing 'concerns' of the potential impact for the rest of the UK.
This change comes at a time of systemic discontent and disengagement with the current class of politicians, a sentiment especially strong among young people. In a recent documentary for the BBC, Jolyon Rubenstein highlighted just how turned off the 'Facebook generation' are by today's politicians. The ramblings of Russell Brand have echoed loudly around the social media halls of this generation, and his 'don't vote' mantra has proved to be an especially potent one. This rejection of the political elite appears to be very agreeable with younger generations, but it is worth questioning how many don't vote as a political statement, or because they simply don't bother with politics. It's clear that this situation is raising concerns over the responsibilities of expanding franchise. Either way, it would be unwise to believe that lowering the voting age would even begin to stop the rot of political disinterest, because all too often the younger generations of Britain feel left out of or ill-equipped to take part in the conversation. But it would be unfair to use this disengagement as an argument against allowing 16 and 17 year olds the vote. Despite the interpretation that teenagers don't vote because they haven't 'grown up', we should perhaps consider that they are not being provided with the confidence to do so.
When reporting for the Media Trust discussing the future of young people and Scottish politics, I talked to some students at Woodmill High School in Dunfermline. Although all who were able to had voted in the referendum, some students expressed doubts about potentially voting in a general election. They felt that it was too big of a responsibility, as their choice could impact many different areas that didn't affect them (somewhat ironic, considering the potential implications of voting to create an independent country). One young student said that he simply didn't know enough, and knew that he wouldn't go out of his way to learn more either.
It's clear that simply giving young people a vote won't replicate the great turnout of last September's referendum. But instead of seeing the referendum as evidence for lowering the voting age, we should see it something much more useful - as a model for increasing political engagement. Scotland saw an 86 percent turnout at the ballot box, and the debate energised and politicised every age group. People who confessed to have no interest in politics were getting sucked into the conversation. As for the newly enfranchised 16 and 17 year olds, last September saw 75%t, with 97% of those who voted stating that they would vote again. It was a veritable success story in democracy.
So, can this success be emulated for elections to come? The answer to that is still unclear, but more can certainly be done. Social media played a key role in allowing young people to engage with various key issues during the lead up to the referendum; the constant sharing of articles, facts and figures on various social platforms made the debate almost impossible to ignore.
Another important area that allowed for confident political engagement by teenagers was the level of discussion that took place in schools in the run up to the referendum. A study by Dr Jan Eichhorn found that through allowing students to debate several issues relating to the referendum with their peers in structured environment, their political confidence increased. As this issue of confidence was the main reservation put forward by the young voters that I talked to, it seems clear that political discussion in schools could offer a way to change the accessibility of politics. Through debates in the classroom, teenagers would be able to approach the ballot box with a greater understanding of the varying parties and contentious issues, and comprehend more clearly the impact that their choice could have. Encouraging political discussion in schools sets a precedent for teenagers, and engagement in politics becomes a default, not an anomaly.
Giving 16- and 17-year-olds the vote won't change the narrative of increasing apathy because it isn't enough. It's like giving someone a car and promptly criticizing them for either crashing it or leaving it to rust. Greater exposure to current political discussions through easily accessible platforms like social media or promoting open discussion in school would allow younger generations to approach politics with a greater sense of involvement and understanding. Teenagers do care about politics, but confidence in their ability to discuss political issues needs to be nurtured. So instead of simply waiting for them to grow up, we need to create an environment in which politics is accessible, and political discussion is normal. That is what we can learn from Scotland's referendum, and that is how we can avoid political disengagement for generations to come.