Scotland's Other Winners: Teenage Voters

Voters younger than 18 turned out not to be such radicals after all, strengthening the case for 16- and 17-year-olds to win the franchise.
Actually, it was Generation Nae.

The 16- and 17-year-olds who voted in Scotland's referendum didn't determine the outcome. The margin of victory for the "yes" vote was larger than their total number of votes. But they did make a strong case to the rest of the world for a lower voting age.

The U.K.'s voting age is 18, but Scottish Nationalist Party leader Alex Salmond struck a deal to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to participate in the referendum, believing it would benefit the "yes" vote. It was a logical calculation: Support for independence was highest among those under 30.

Pre-election polls and surveys, however, suggested that voters under 18 were narrowly divided and leaning the other way. Kids today. So conservative.

If Salmond had gotten his wish, and the vast majority of 16- and 17-year olds had voted for independence, conservatives at home and abroad would have tut-tutted that they were too young to know what they were doing. By not voting as a bloc, and by largely mirroring societal attitudes, the young Scots knocked down the image of young voters as radicals. In doing so, they gave a big boost to the argument that 16-year-olds can responsibly participate in the democratic process -- and to a nascent international movement to lower voting ages.

If 16-year-old Scots can participate in a national election with historic consequences -- and acquit themselves well -- why not allow them to vote for members of Parliament? And if young Scots can vote, why not young people in the rest of Europe -- and elsewhere?

Few countries allow those under 18 to vote, and two that do are not exactly models of democracy: Cuba and North Korea. (Choice of candidates in those countries is another matter.) In Hungary, you can vote if you are 16, but only if you're married. ("I now pronounce you voters.") One nation has no minimum voting age at all: Anyone under 80 can vote for the Holy See's head of state. (The other eligibility requirements, however, are rather stiff.)

A handful of nations in Latin America (Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador and Nicaragua) allow 16-year-olds to vote, while Indonesia, Sudan and Timor-Leste extend the franchise to 17-year-olds. Several islands that are possessions of the British Crown (Guernsey, Isle of Man and Jersey) have lowered their voting ages to 16; in 2007, Austria became the first country in Europe to do so for national elections.

The early evidence from Austria shows two positive developments: Turnout for 16- and 17-year-olds was higher than for 18- to 21-year-olds who hadn't previously voted, and voters in the younger group were also more likely to show up for the next election. That suggests that earlier voting may be more habit-forming. A study of voting in Denmark, where 16- and 17-year-olds can participate in local elections (as they can in some other parts of Europe), found similarly positive results.

There is logic in allowing teenagers to vote before leaving secondary school, even beyond forming healthy habits early in their lives. Those that attend university often leave behind their connections to their home communities and elected officials, weakening their incentive to vote. Those that enter the working world lose the guiding support of teachers -- and often parents, too -- who can encourage them to participate in the process.

The push for lower voting ages has not caught fire in the U.S., but last year Takoma Park, Maryland, became the first city to lower the voting age to 16 for local elections, and other municipalities are now talking about it. Given the tradition of local experimentation in the U.S., it seems inevitable that more towns and cities will follow Takoma Park's lead. The Scottish referendum, by showing that the kids are alright, may help accelerate that process.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

    To contact the author on this story:
    Frank Barry at fbarry5@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editors on this story:
    Frank Barry at fbarry5@bloomberg.net
    Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net

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