By Davide Tiberti, Research and Evaluation Manager at the Electoral Commission
High turnout is often regarded as an indicator of healthy democracies. Despite the surge at the last UK Parliamentary general election, turnout among young people in the UK remains low and some academics have highlighted how youth disengagement can generate a vicious circle: they argue that politicians can afford to neglect the interests of non-voters who in turn can feel let down and further disaffection sets in.
Several studies have shown the importance of first time voting, as evidence indicates that young citizens who fail to vote the first time they become eligible are less likely to vote throughout their lives.
This was a key driver behind the work of the Commission to promote registration and voting at the May 2017 elections in Scotland, where 16- and 17-year-olds were voting for the first time in a Scotland-wide set of council elections.
As part of our post-polls evaluation work, we also focused our attention on understanding this audience better by boosting the sample of 16-17s in our survey to find out what they think. The findings provide interesting insight into their views and electoral behavior.
What we know about the voting attitudes of 16- and 17-year-olds
Turnout among 16-17s is likely to have been in line with under 34s but lower than among over 35s.
While our public opinion data is not designed to provide turnout estimates by age group, we can use the findings in a comparative context to provide an indication of how turnout might have varied between age groups.
Our results suggest that turnout among 16-17s is likely to have been similar to that among 18-34s, but significantly lower than among those aged over 35: 51% of 16-17s claimed to have voted against 85% of those aged 55+.
They are motivated by the desire to express their view and create change rather than by civic duty.
Our surveys have constantly shown how younger people tend to be less likely than older age groups to say that civic duty motivate them to vote. Civic responsibility reasons still remain the top motivation for voting for all age groups – even the younger ones – except 16-17s whose most common reason was ‘to express a view’.
Significantly higher than all other age groups, 20% said they voted ‘to help create a change’.
They use social media to access information on candidates but are the most likely to say they didn’t get enough information.
Two in five 16-17s (40%) disagreed with the statement ‘I had enough information on candidates to be able to make an informed decision in the Scottish Council Elections’, significantly more than 35-54s (26%) and 55+ (17%).
Among those 16-17s who agreed with that statement (52%), 33% said they access information on candidates on social media: this is the most popular channel for this age cohort while for the 18+ it remains leaflets/flyers from parties and candidates.
Family and friends have a strong influence on their propensity to turnout.
Interestingly, as we saw at the Scottish Parliament elections in 2016, participation by family and friends has a strong influence on turnout among 16-17s. Of those who voted in May, 95% said that their parents/guardians had voted and 50% said that ‘most of my friends voted’. Among those who did not turn out, only 50% of parents/guardian and 10% of ‘most friends’ voted.
They are less likely to be satisfied with the procedures for both registering and voting.
Our survey also shows that 16-17s year olds are less satisfied than the overall population when it comes to the procedure for voting (64% vs. 78%) and registering (76% vs. 88%). This is probably due to turnout and experience as first-time voters may need some time to become familiar with the process.
Nonetheless, this also highlights the need for the system to keep up with the changing expectations that society has of public services. Concerning electoral registration for example, technology and measures introduced over the last few years have brought positive results and it is important to build on these successes.
As the chart below shows, while satisfaction with the registration process is lower among 16- and 17-year-olds than the overall population (76% vs 88%), we note a significant increase since the Scottish Independence referendum (September 2014 when 16-17s were eligible for the first time) and after the introduction of online registration. This was launched in Scotland shortly after the referendum and is proving very successful, especially with young people who are more likely to need to register to vote.
They are the most likely to support measures to modernise the system.
In July the Commission argued for further modernisation of the registration process and we invited the UK’s governments to consider automatic enrolment to improve services to voters and relieve burden on local authorities.
We asked the public what they think about this and young people were more supportive of the measure: three quarters (74%) of 16-17s think that you should be automatically added to the electoral register when you receive your National Insurance Number, against 59% of all respondents (and only 38% of those aged 65+).
Next elections for 16-17s are in 2021
There are no further scheduled elections in which 16-17s in Scotland can vote in until 2021.
Because of the importance of first-time voting, the Commission has recommended that consideration needs to be given to how to engage young people who will reach the age of electoral majority in the next four years. The Commission will work with educational partners and councils to identify opportunities for supporting ongoing political literacy, but reforms are needed to deliver an electoral registration and voting process that meets the demands of our changing society.
All results and data tables from our public opinion surveys are available on our website (Research report library, Public opinion research).