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For Scotland's 16-Year-Olds, The First Vote Will Be On Independence

Sep 17, 2014
Originally published on September 17, 2014 6:03 pm

It's lunchtime at Drummond Community High School in Edinburgh. The kids are all wearing the uniform of a smart black blazer, white shirt and blue tie. Some 16- and 17-year-olds are here with their cheese sandwiches and their baked potatoes.

They get to cast ballots Thursday in what looks to be a close vote on whether Scotland will become independent or remain part of the United Kingdom.

Here's what some of them are saying:

"Scotland will be a richer country if there's a 'yes' vote" for independence, says Calum Preston. "It's just a fact."

"What if that fact doesn't influence any of the decisions I'm going to make?" counters Mark Burns.

"We'll have more devolved powers," Preston responds.

The teenagers are passionate new voters on opposite sides of the debate. Preston, who favors independence, says before this campaign he didn't care about politics at all.

"Because all the parties were offering pretty much the same thing anyway," he explains. "And if I voted, it probably wouldn't matter what I voted."

In the last two years, these students have been inundated with campaign materials, television ads, lectures and debates.

Many of them are eating it up.

Nishat Mohammad and Zoe Clark say that people who think teenagers are too immature to follow this debate clearly haven't been following teenagers.

"Our influence is more important than the older generation because we're going to be living here longer," says Mohammad.

"I think we have a fresher look because so many people become sort of disillusioned with normal politics. But we're just coming into it now so we've not got like that — don't believe in it anymore," adds Clark.

Defying Expectations

Scotland's government declared two years ago that the voting age would be lowered from 18 to 16 for this referendum. At the time, most everyone thought a solid majority of the newest and youngest voters would help the independence campaign.

But Jan Eichhorn, a professor of social policy at the University of Edinburgh, says that assumption was wrong on several levels.

"The 16-, 17-year-olds are under 3 percent of the vote. So they were never going to be vote decisive," he says.

Eichhorn has conducted surveys of Scottish teenagers, and his findings on their political views defied expectations: The 16- and 17-year-olds are on average slightly less likely than adults to vote for independence.

And, he says, the level of political interest among teenagers is as high as among adults. Ninety-seven percent of all of the people who are eligible to vote in Scotland have registered.

The most decisive factor in determining a teenager's vote is an evaluation of how the economy would fare in an independent Scotland.

"Overall, they are informed. They have a slightly different way of getting at information. But there's no evidence to suggest that they're less capable than adults of voting, from a research point of view," Eichhorn says.

These teenagers are just as likely to read newspaper articles and campaign materials. Unlike their parents, they're more likely to find those materials through social media.

Facebook says in the past five weeks, there were 10 million Facebook interactions about the referendum.

Leonie Malone, 16, says some of her 15-year-old friends are jealous that she gets this privilege.

"We're allowed to have a baby and move into a house at 16," she says. "I can get married. Why can't we decide what's best for our country?"

She says kids used to show up at school and talk about reality television.
Now they're talking about actual reality.

Even if this age group does not change the outcome of the independence referendum, Eichhorn thinks they have changed Scotland.

"I think it will be very hard in Scotland to say to young people, 'Well, you can decide about the future of your country, but you can't vote for your local member of the Parliament.' I think that would be very strange."

This will be the first time 16- and 17-year-olds have been allowed to vote in Scotland. But many people believe it won't be the last.

You can follow Ari Shapiro on Twitter @arishapiro.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

So as we've just heard, polls show that older Scots are inclined to vote no - or against independence - in tomorrow's referendum, but there will be more young people than ever casting ballots. For the first time, Scotland has lowered the voting age to 16. We hear now from NPR's Ari Shapiro who reports on the impact of the youth vote on Scotland's future.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: It's lunchtime at Drummond Community High School in Edinburgh. Kids are all wearing the uniform of a smart, black blazer, white shirt and blue tie. Some 16 and 17-year-olds are here with their cheese sandwiches and their baked potatoes. They get to vote on Thursday over whether Scotland will become independent. Let's hear what they think.

CALUM PRESTON: Scotland will be a richer country if there's a yes vote. It's just a fact.

MARK BURNS: What if that fact doesn't influence any of the decisions I'm going to make?

PRESTON: We'll have more devolved powers.

SHAPIRO: Calum Preston and Mark Burns are passionate new voters on opposite sides of the debate. Preston, the yes voter, says before this campaign, he didn't care about politics at all.

PRESTON: 'Cause all the parties were offering pretty much the same thing anyway. And if I voted, it probably wouldn't matter what I voted.

SHAPIRO: In the last two years, these students have been inundated with campaign materials, television ads, lectures and debates. Many of them are eating it up. Nishat Mohammad and Zoe Clark say people who think teenagers are too immature to follow this debate clearly have not been following teenagers.

NISHAT MOHAMMAD: Our influence is more important than the older generation 'cause we're going to be living here longer.

ZOE CLARK: I think we have a fresher look because so many people become sort of disillusioned with normal politics, but we're just coming into it now, so we've not got like that - don't believe in it anymore.

SHAPIRO: Scotland's government declared two years ago that 16 and 17-year-olds would be allowed to vote in this referendum. At the time, most everyone thought lowering the voting age would help the independence campaign. They assumed teenagers would be yes voters. Dr. Jan Eichhorn says that assumption was wrong on several levels. He's a professor of social policy at the University of Edinburgh.

JAN EICHHORN: The 16 to 17-year-olds are under 3 percent of the vote. So you're not - they were never going to be, you know, vote-decisive per se.

SHAPIRO: Eichhorn has conducted surveys of Scottish teenagers. And his findings on their political views defied expectations.

EICHHORN: Sixteen to seventeen-year-olds are, on average, slightly less likely to vote yes than adults.

SHAPIRO: They are more likely than their parents to support keeping the United Kingdom intact. He says the level of political interest among teenagers is as high as adults. Ninety-seven percent of the people who are eligible to vote in Scotland have registered. And the most decisive factor determining a teenager's vote is an evaluation of how the economy would fare in an independent Scotland.

EICHHORN: Overall, they are informed. They have a slightly different way of getting that information, but there's no evidence to suggest that they are less capable than adults of voting, from a research point of view.

SHAPIRO: These teenagers are just as likely to read newspaper articles and campaign materials. Unlike their parents, they're more likely to find those materials through social media. Facebook says in the last five weeks, there were 10 million Facebook interactions about the referendum. Leonie Malone is 16. She says some of her 15-year-old friends are jealous that she gets this privilege.

LEONIE MALONE: We're allowed to have a baby and move into a house at 16. Why - I can get married. Why can't we decide what's the best for our country?

SHAPIRO: Have you heard many people say, oh, this is ridiculous, 16-year-olds should not be allowed to vote?

MALONE: Yes and I think that's totally offensive.

SHAPIRO: She says kids used to show up at school and talk about reality TV. Now they're talking about actual reality. Even if this age group does not change the outcome of the independence referendum, Dr. Eichhorn thinks they have changed Scotland.

EICHHORN: I think it will be very hard in Scotland to say to young people, well, you can decide about the future of your country, but you can't vote for your local member of the parliament. I think that would be very strange.

SHAPIRO: So tomorrow will be the first time 16 and 17-year-olds have been allowed to vote in Scotland. But many people believe it won't be the last. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Edinburgh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.