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From Ayr to Here -- Studying the Scottish Experiment in Youth Voting

10/30/2014 05:55 EDT | Updated 12/30/2014 05:59 EST
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A young girl runs around a street pole with a Scottish national flag before taking part in a demonstration in favor of Scottish independence in Brussels on Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014. Scots held the fate of the United Kingdom in their hands Thursday as they voted in a referendum on becoming an independent state, deciding whether to unravel a marriage with England that built an empire but has increasingly been felt by many Scots as stifling and one-sided. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

by: Craig and Marc Kielburger

The entire school in Ayr, Scotland, vibrated with anticipation. The lunchroom sounded more like a debate hall than a cafeteria. Kirsty McCahill watched the clock tick down to the closing bell. She rushed home, then to the nearby community centre to do what no Scottish 16-year-old had ever done before that day: vote on the future of her country.

Scotland's recent referendum held the world on the edge of its seat. Would the country stay in the U.K., or vote to go it alone? But while most fixated on the results, we were watching Scottish youth. For the referendum, Scotland temporarily lowered the voting age from 18 to 16. Although it's early yet, there are signs the referendum inspired a hunger in a new generation to engage in the political life of their nation.

Canadian voter turnout at all levels is on a downhill slope. With municipal elections in Ontario and Manitoba, and a national election next year, are there lessons we can take away from the Scottish experiment in youth voting?

In Canada, the low voter turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds is raised as evidence that youth aren't interested in voting. But when Scotland opened the vote to those under 18, more than 109,000 registered -- over 80 per cent of all eligible voters in this new age group. There is no count yet on how many actually cast a ballot, but Kirsty said all her friends hit the polls.

Admittedly, an independence referendum is more compelling than a general election. However, Kirsty told us that, since the referendum, her peers haven't lost their interest in politics. Hallway debates continue unabated, and there's unanimous agreement at the lunchroom table that they want to vote again in next May's U.K. parliamentary elections.

That newfound engagement will pay off for Scotland in the long run, according to Jean-Pierre Kinglsey, who served as Canada's chief electoral officer for 17 years. Kingsley says whether you vote or not in the first two elections in which you are eligible, sets your lifelong voting habits. Having started voting at 16 or 17 years old means those young Scots will likely continue to do so.

The other common argument against youth voting is that those under 18 aren't mature enough to grasp the issues and make informed decisions.

For the referendum, youth organizations set up national debates. According to Louise Macdonald, CEO of Young Scot, Scotland's largest youth organization, media pundits widely agreed that the youth debates were more informative than the adult-oriented debates. Questions from young voters were thoughtful and less partisan.

We tested Kirsty on her knowledge of referendum issues, and got a well-informed dissertation on common currency, defense, oil revenues and pensions. This backs another observation by Macdonald--that young Scottish voters weighed community needs, not just their own narrow self-interests.

Experts on both sides of the ocean were emphatic that a youth vote must be accompanied by greater education and encouragement. Kingsley calls for more civics lessons in the classroom -- as important as math or science -- and support for non-partisan organizations that engage young people, like Apathy is Boring. Macdonald adds Scotland's strong youth involvement in the referendum was due in part to the extensive education and outreach work of organizations like Young Scot and the Scottish Youth Parliament.

A lower voting age isn't the panacea for Canadian voter apathy. But fresh evidence from Scotland makes it worth taking another hard look at the idea. And there are other countries with lowered voting ages, such as Austria, Bosnia, Brazil and Indonesia, we can learn from as well.

For her part, Kirsty will continue working with the Scottish Youth Parliament, pushing for the youth vote to become permanent under the new powers U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron promised to Scotland during the referendum.

We suspect many Canadian youth would resoundingly agree with her final words to us: "It's paramount that young people have a say in the running of our country. We are engaged and interested and we're mature enough to make an informed decision."

Brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger founded a platform for social change that includes the international charity, Free The Children, the social enterprise, Me to We, and the youth empowerment movement, We Day.