So How Many 16 and 17 Year Olds Voted?

The Electoral Commission has released its report on the conduct of the Scottish independence referendum today. For the most part the exercise gets top marks. Voters not only turned out in unprecedented numbers, but were also largely satisfied with the arrangements for voting.

Underpinning the report is a relatively large post-referendum survey in which 1,852 people were interviewed by phone by ICM between 19th September and 26th October. Particular efforts were made to contact non-voters, the proportion of whom in the sample, at 16%, matches the proportion registered by the official referendum result.

The publication of this survey provides us with the first reliable indication of the level of turnout amongst 16 and 17 year olds. The sample contains 112 people falling within that age bracket, not enough to give us a precise estimate of their level of turnout, but just about enough to give us a broad indication of whether 16 and 17 year olds were more or less likely to vote than those in other age groups.

The pattern is much as would be anticipated from the experience of other countries such as Austria and Norway that have already enfranchised 16 and 17 year olds. On the one hand, encouraged perhaps by mum and dad to make the journey to the polling station, 16 and 17 year olds were more likely to vote than were those aged 18-24, many of whom would no longer be living at home. On the other hand, they were still less likely to vote than those who were more than twice their age. To that extent, the referendum turnout amongst 16 and 17 year olds still reflects the general tendency for younger voters to be less likely to make it to the polls. Those who look to the enfranchisement of 16 and 17 year olds in all elections as a way of boosting turnout should, it seem, not set their expectations too high.

More precisely, according to ICM’s survey, 75% of 16 and 17 year olds voted, compared with 54% of 18-24 year olds and 72% of 25-34 year olds. The turnout in all three groups is markedly lower than the estimate for 35-54 year olds (85%) and those aged 55 and over (92%).

Meanwhile the Electoral Commission’s report reminds us of the special measures that were taken to enfranchise 16 and 17 year olds, including not least not making a version of the electoral register that contained their names generally available. It notes that the potential conflict between the need for transparency in electoral registration and the demands of child protection will need addressing when, following yesterday’s agreement between the UK and Scottish governments, the procedures for enfranchising16 and 17 year olds in the May 2016 Scottish Parliament election are put in place.

Still, it looks as though that change will now have broad public support in Scotland. As many as 60% say that voting at 16 should be introduced, up from 44% when ICM asked a somewhat differently worded question immediately after last May’s European election. Those aged 16 and 17 themselves seem particularly keen on the idea, with 75% in favour. But amongst whom is the idea rather less popular? Yes, you have guessed correctly, 18-24 year olds,. Only 51% of them back the idea!

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About the author

John Curtice is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, Senior Research Fellow at ScotCen and at 'UK in a Changing Europe', and Chief Commentator on the What Scotland Thinks website.