Scotland mobilizes youth vote in run-up to referendum

When Scotland votes on independence in September’s referendum, people as young as 16 will be heading to the polls. On both sides of the campaign, young people are being encouraged to voice their opinion about the country’s future.

As Scotland prepares for referendum on independence, both sides of campaign seek youth vote

A teacher and schoolgirl run in front of a sign indicating the date of Scotland's independence referendum outside the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. Scotland will hold its independence referendum on Sept. 18. (David Moir/REUTERS)

This summer a battle is being waged for the hearts and minds of Scottish youth, and at stake is nothing less than the future of Scotland itself.

Scotland is holding a historic referendum on Sept. 18 on whether to become an independent country or remain part of the U.K.

The 16-to-24 age range represents approximately 12 per cent of the population of Scotland. Studies have indicated this group tends to have a strong British identity that coexists with a Scottish one, more so than the older generations. Grabbing their attention is all the more important because in this referendum, youth could make the difference.

With less than 100 days to go, campaigns for both sides of the Scottish referendum are in full swing. Opinion polls still show that the "No" side is the lead. Both campaigns have been appealing to young people to get out and vote. (Angela MacKenzie/CBC )

That’s why campaigners, politicians and youth groups are busy trying to engage young people, many of whom are first-time voters. Using mock referendums and issues debates, town hall meetings and even hip hop lyrics, Scotland’s youth are being encouraged to voice their own opinions about their country’s future.

For the first time, teens as young as 16 will now have the right to vote, thanks to Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond. SNP ministers struck a deal with British Prime Minister David Cameron in 2012 to lower the voting age for the referendum. It’s a decision that makes sense for people aligned with both the Yes and Better Together (No) campaigns.

“We’re on the verge of becoming an independent country,” says Paul Martin, a Yes campaign organizer for Edinburgh North & Leith. “It seems only sensible that people who have the rest of their lives ahead of them should be involved in that decision-making process.”

We're on the verge of becoming an independent country. It seems only sensible that people who have the rest of their lives ahead of them should be involved in that decision-making process.- Paul Martin, a Yes campaign organizer 

“I think it’s right for them to have the vote, because it’s going to affect them just as much as anybody else,” says Allana Hoggard, an 18-year-old youth rep for the Better Together campaign.

Scottish Youth Parliament (SYP) chair Kyle Thornton agrees, stressing the importance of mobilizing youth to vote.

“If it’s very close, 16- and 17-year-olds would decide the referendum,” he explains. “I think that’s why both sides of the campaign are so keen on young people being engaged.”

Creating voters for life

Scotland has struggled in recent years to get youth to the polls. Voter turnout amongst 18- to 24-year-olds has been declining, dipping to its lowest point in 2005, at 38.2 per cent.

But it appears the campaign for the referendum is working. So far, 80 per cent of this new group of 16- and 17-year-olds has registered to vote, representing around 100,000 Scottish residents. An impressive number, considering the referendum is more than three months away.

Kyle Thornton from Scottish Youth Parliament said his organization hopes to create a "voter generation" through efforts to involve youth in the upcoming referendum. (Angela MacKenzie/CBC)

Thornton is 19 years old and chair of the SYP, a neutral organization focused on getting 16- to 24-year-olds to register to vote and engage with the issues. The group’s methods include online activities, hosting democracy days, and raising awareness in schools and youth clubs.

“Wherever young people are, we go out,” he says. “We’re not there telling them about every issue. We want to light that spark in their head, to get them thinking about what they believe, of what their priorities are. If we can start that spark among thousands of young people, then I really do believe that more will come out to vote.”

What we really hope is not just to have them as engaged voters throughout this referendum. We want to create a voter generation.- Kyle Thornton, Scottish Youth Parliament 

Thornton’s goal is that Scotland’s youth will continue to vote in the general elections after the referendum is over.

“What we really hope is not just to have them as engaged voters throughout this referendum,” he says. “We want to create a voter generation.”

Battling voter apathy

Getting youth to engage in the issues and see the value in voting is a tough sell. For teenagers who have never voted before, schools are a natural starting point to reach them.

“Schools are encouraged to do things such as mock hostings and having politicians visit,” explains Derek Carran, the head teacher at Forrester High in Edinburgh. “We have to be quite open about what we’re doing so we’re not seen to be taking sides in any way, and ensuring that kids get information that allows them to make their own choices and vote.”

At the university level, students have been taking part in mock referendums.

Michael Gray was a student at Glasgow University last year. The 22-year-old was inspired by the locally organized mock referendums that have been taking place in the Catalonia region of Spain. Gray decided to bring the same idea to Scotland, starting with his school. About 2,500 students participated.

“We did it independently, which is often the best way to do things,” he said. “We had great support from young people in student groups across all the political parties.”

The result of that first mock referendum during the early stages of the campaign was a vote of 37 per cent Yes and 63 per cent No. As the year went on, more were held in Glasgow at both Strathclyde University and Glasgow City College, and they saw the Yes vote creep up to 55 per cent.

A recent survey, meanwhile, shows two-thirds of Scottish youth are concerned with the economic future of an independent Scotland. It’s clear that young Scots aren’t yet unified in their choice.

The Quebec connection

Bringing out the youth vote is a challenge well known to advocates in other countries, including Canada. It’s especially important where independence is a concern.

Canadian charitable organization Apathy is Boring works hard to educate youth about democracy through technology and art. In Quebec for example, it saw voter turnout drop to a measly 36.2 per cent in the 2008 general election and then spike to a whopping 62.1 per cent in the 2012 vote following the student protests over tuition hikes.

Young "Yes" supporters, wearing frocks with the French word "Oui", walk outside a rally in Quebec in October 1995. For Brits grappling with the idea of Scottish independence, it may be worth looking across the Atlantic to Canada's experience with independence issues. (Shaun Best/REUTERS)

“[2012] really was the most in-depth mobilization of young people that we’ve seen in Quebec,” says Apathy is Boring founder Ilona Dougherty. “We definitely did not see that level of mobilization this time around [for the 2014 vote].”

Though the push for Scottish independence does share some similarities with the debate over sovereignty in Quebec, what it doesn’t have are the same language and cultural divisions that resulted in the separatist Parti Québécois building a campaign based on exclusion — a campaign that many say ultimately caused it to lose the election in April.

“We’ve definitely seen less interest and less ideal-driven interest in separation,” Dougherty says of the Quebec youth vote. “I think this generation tends to be more pragmatic and they don’t just buy into the concept without questioning it. Certainly that’s something that we’re seeing in the younger generation, which makes some of the PQ rhetoric a little harder for them to digest.”

That’s an attitude that Scottish youth do seem to share with Quebec. They aren’t willing to take independence at face value. They want to be convinced.