Comment: Why on earth are we allowing votes at 16 now?

By Kez Dugdale

A historic agreement between the Scottish and UK governments is being signed this week, paving the way for an official referendum on Scottish Independence, made in Scotland.

That deal, signed off by Alex Salmond and David Cameron even before the responses to the referendum consultation have been published, will give 16-year-olds in Scotland the right to vote. Some of them anyway.

I wholeheartedly support votes at 16. I’m a signed up member of the 'Votes at 16' coalition and have spoken in parliament in favour of it. Our society gives you the responsibility to pay tax, and the ability to marry, and yet you have no say in its governance. If you can die for your country, you should be entitled to vote for the government that sent you there.

But 'Votes at 16' isn't just for this Christmas, or this referendum, it should be the standard for all of our elections, and I'm a little uncomfortable that its first serious outing is for something as omnipotent and unique as the referendum on Scottish Independence.

As far as I can fathom, if we were to stick to the current voter registration rules then to be eligible to vote in 2014 you will have to be on the electoral register that is published on December 1st, 2013. But under that current rule, you can only be on that register if you are going to turn 18 in the next year. So all those who are currently 17 will qualify, as will some 16 year olds, but this leaves out those who are currently 14 or 15. Most of them will be 16 or 17 years old by October 2014, and they will be of eligible age but unable to vote. Clear isn't it?!

Such a criticism might be considered pedantry by those who have staked a claim on winning the campaign for votes at 16, but for me it’s a crucial and worrying point.

Imagine you're a 14-year-old pupil at secondary school, with your eyes wide open to the world and full of hope and promise. Yo'’ll wake up on Monday to discover that you will have a democratic stake in the future of our country, the like of which hasn’t been seen in living memory. You listen hard to the arguments, debate them with your friends, your parents over the dinner table. You watch the TV debates, shout at the telly and switch to the football in disgust like everyone else. Come the day, October 18th 2014, you walk down to the polling station your parents have voted in dozens of times, only to find your name is not on the list. Why? Because you had the temerity to be born the wrong side of December.

The disappointment, frustration and anger that will come from that disenfranchisement won't just last the length of time the referendum fever exists, but for a lifetime. Denied a right you were led to believe you were entitled to.

Getting 16-and-17-year-old on the electoral register will be a huge challenge for local authorities. Not only do they need to get to grips with any new rules around voter registration, but they will also have to carry out targeted work to encourage those who will be of eligible age to apply to the register, and all within a relatively short timescale, and dare I suggest at their own expense?

So it is not clear if the majority of 16-and-17-year-olds will be able to vote as the moment dawns. Assurances need to be made before this is another promise broken. Another string to the bow marked apathy.

I'm afraid it's typical of the retail politics that the SNP engage in. The packaging of the votes at 16 looks like a great deal. Rip the box open and examine the contents and you'll be sorely disappointed.

The key question is this: will any of the organisations who've fought for this radical change, be brave enough to stand up on Monday and say 'hang on, this isn't what I ordered'.

Kez Dugdale is for MSP for the Lothians, follow her on Twitter.

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