Scottish independence: Bill to lower voting age lodged
Proposed legislation to let 16 and 17-year-olds vote in the Scottish independence referendum has been formally brought to parliament.
SNP ministers said it would ensure everyone aged 16 and over on the day of the autumn 2014 vote could take part.
Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said young people had the biggest stake in the future of the country.
Labour said further clarity was needed to ensure every 16-year-old was able to vote on polling day.
And the Scottish Conservatives said they did not support using the referendum for a "trial extension" of the voter franchise.
The Scottish government's bill to lower the voting age from 18 came just ahead of a separate piece of legislation on the arrangements to hold the referendum itself.
Ministers said their The Scottish Referendum (Franchise) Bill would:
- Set out who can vote in the referendum, placing young voters on an equal footing with other electors.
- Give electoral registration officers powers to register those who will be 16 or over on the day of the vote.
- Store information on young people separately from other electoral registers, with restricted access to ensure the data is secure.
Lowering the voting age for all elections is a long-standing SNP policy, and the party says it has been backed by organisations including Scotland's biggest teaching union, the EIS, as well as the Scottish TUC, National Union of Students and the Electoral Reform Society.
Nicola Sturgeon - backed by other parties, with the exception of the Conservatives - is adamant that it is right to extend the franchise for this referendum”
The UK government previously opposed votes for 16 and 17-year-olds in the independence referendum, although the measure was eventually included in the Edinburgh Agreement, which set out the terms for the vote and was signed by both Westminster and Scottish ministers.
Speaking in Edinburgh, Ms Sturgeon said: "No-one has a bigger stake in the future of our country than today's young people and it is only right that they are able to have a say in the most important vote to be held in Scotland for three centuries.
"In next year's referendum, Scotland's 16 and 17-year-olds will be given the opportunity to shape their country's path by choosing what type of country they want Scotland to be."
She added: "We want to make sure that our young people have the opportunity to engage in Scotland's democratic process.
End Quote Prof John Curtice Polling expert
It's an exaggeration to believe that 16 or 17-year-olds are markedly more likely to vote in favour of independence”
"We want to give them the right to voice their views, freely and confidently, on the matters that affect them."
The bill was welcomed by Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie, who said: "Giving 16 and 17-year-olds the vote in the independence referendum is an important step in our efforts to build a fairer society.
"Scottish Liberal Democrats will be proud to support this move and hope that it will open the door to wider reform across the UK."
Labour MSP Neil Bibby also backed the legislation, but added: "Questions have been raised about the practicalities of ensuring that everyone who is eligible to vote, is able to vote and we will scrutinise the legislation closely to ensure that these have been answered.
"There is now a short amount of time between the legislation being submitted, debated, passed and it being implemented across Scotland later this year."
The Tories' Annabel Goldie said young people would only have a "very restricted" opportunity to test their knowledge and opinions against life experience, adding: "The Scottish Conservatives are not hostile to debate on the different age limits for different activities, but are not supportive of singling out the independence referendum for a trial extension of franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds."
Young people "ready to vote"
Kyle Thornton, who is 18 and vice-chair of the Scottish Youth Parliament, said 16 and 17-year-olds were ready to vote.
The Glasgow University student, who became a community councillor at the age of 16, told the BBC: "Independence is going to affect 16 and 17-year-olds more than any other group in society, because they're just going to be around the longest.
"I think they're ready to vote, I think they've got the intelligence, I think they've got the ability to cast a vote, and, if I'm honest, I can't see a difference between a 16-year-old voting and an 18-year-old voting."
He added: "Not that many young people are interested in politics, but I think young people get interested in the issues and interested in things that affect them, affect their lives.
"Use the word politics, it will put off most people, but if you talk about things like equal marriage, talks about things like jobs, the economy, young people then get interested."
Polling expert Prof John Curtice said there was a lack of evidence to suggest that younger teenagers could play a big role in achieving a "Yes" vote - a point raised by critics of the SNP's policy.
He added: "If you look at the polls in the round, what you discover is, yes, younger people are perhaps a little more likely to be in favour of independence than those who are in their 30s or 40s.
"Certainly it's an exaggeration to believe that 16 or 17-year-olds are markedly more likely to vote in favour of independence than everybody else."
The franchise bill, which needs to be passed by MSPs before becoming law, will base voter eligibility on Scottish parliamentary and council elections.
That means groups of people entitled to vote include people living in Scotland who are British, Irish or from other EU countries, "qualifying Commonwealth citizens" and members of the armed services serving overseas who are registered to vote in Scotland.
The Scottish government has already lowered the voting age to 16 in one area, when it piloted health board elections in Dumfries and Galloway and Fife.
The Scottish Parliament's special cross-party referendum committee will now scrutinise the bill, and issued a call for evidence to the public.
MSPs on the committee said they wanted to hear from young people on how best to reach younger teenagers who were not politically engaged.