Underneath the sound and fury of the Scottish independence referendum, numerous changes to how Scotland goes to election polls have been proposed by the Scottish government – in particular reducing the voting age to 16. Amid all the constitutional debate, the government’s consultation passed almost unnoticed when it was published in the spring. There was also mostly silence when it closed for submissions. Yet changes to the rules of the electoral game are always potentially serious. They change the terms on which voters engage with those who would seek to govern and represent them.
The consultation attempted to resolve various issues in Scottish electoral politics which were highlighted after the 2012 Scottish local government elections. These led to an inquiry in late 2012/early 2013, to which the consultation is a response.
The main concern was that the turnout for the 2012 elections, at 39.8%, was much lower than the 52.1% figure of 2007. The main reason was that the 2007 local elections were held concurrently with those for the Scottish parliament. All the same, a decline in participation was a clear trend in the context of turnout figures that have been well north of 40% for many years (and steadily falling).
In the proposal to allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote, the Scottish government is certainly being consistent. Most obviously, the franchise has already been extended to 16 to 17-year-olds for the 2014 independence referendum. It has also been extended in two lesser sets of elections falling within the competence of the Scottish parliament, those for pilot health boards, and elections to the Crofting Commission.
Debates over extending the franchise have been heated, with opinions somewhat entrenched. In reality there is no real reason why 16 to 17-year-olds should, or should not, be given the vote. While they often get a bad press, this age group can also be highly responsible. The consultation paper tries to underline this latter aspect by seeking to increase the political literacy of younger age groups.
Ye’ll never win anything wi’ kids
Dividing lines on this issue often revolve around turnout. It is here that the Scottish government’s proposals are potentially contradictory. If there is one thing known about elections, it is that younger age groups vote much less than older age groups. This is a consistent finding in numerous countries and levels of election. Critics argue that extending the vote will just increase the numbers of electors who decide not to cast a vote. Put differently, extend the franchise and turnout will decline faster over time.
It is difficult to make any evidence-based judgement on this from the Crofting and Health Board elections, since they would have had very low turnouts either way. The independence referendum will not help much either, since it is such a unique event and turnout is likely to be very high (predictions have been around 80%).
This matters beyond Scotland. Two of the three main parties at Westminster – Labour and the Liberal Democrats – have publicly stated their support for votes at 16. It can be argued that Scottish practice with the referendum has been driving broader debate on this issue. Yet if 16 and 17-year-olds are to be given the vote, the uncertainties about their effects suggest the proposal be justified on principled terms rather than its potential effects on turnout.
Also with turnout in mind, the consultation contains proposals for piloting alternative forms of voting. These include all-postal voting elections, voting by internet, introducing voting machines and telephone voting. There are a number of difficulties with such approaches that mean any such move requires further careful consultation and piloting. These include difficulties over the secrecy and security of the vote with all of these methods. Another technology-related difficulty is that such methods are notorious for driving up election costs.
At the same time, changing the method of voting is very unlikely to increase turnout on its own. What ultimately matters is giving electors something they feel to be of importance, worth getting out and voting for. Many active local campaigns have demonstrated that parties are willing to fight for every vote, and for good reason. Academic research has consistently shown it is effective in mobilising the vote.
In an era of declining party membership, increasing targeting and direct mail campaigning, this kind of campaigning is difficult and expensive for parties to do. Yet as indicated by the very active campaign for the Scottish independence referendum, with campaigners on most local high streets, it is not impossible. If policy people really wish to increase turnout, whether in Scotland or elsewhere in the UK, they also need to start thinking about how they can encourage political parties to engage directly with voters. Rather than making potentially profound changes to the rules in the wrong direction, this would re-energise the whole political system.