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Are Scotland's newly enfranchised youth voters saying nay to aye?

When 16- and 17-year-olds were allowed to vote in today's independence referendum, many expected them to primarily back 'yes.' But experts say that's not the case.

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A school pupil walks away from a polling place after casting his vote, as anyone aged over 16 can vote in the Scottish independence referendum, in Edinburgh, Scotland, on Thursday. Polls have opened across Scotland in a referendum that will decide whether the country leaves its 307-year-old union with England and becomes an independent state.

Matt Dunham/AP

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In Scotland, at 16 you are too young to drive a car or buy alcohol. The minimum age for purchasing cigarettes was raised to 18 a few years ago.

But while they can’t drink, smoke or cruise down the street, today 16-year-old Scots will have a chance afforded to few people of any age: to vote for a new independent state.

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Under the terms of Scotland’s historic independence referendum, 16- and 17-year-olds will be casting a ballot for the first time in a major UK election. With overnight polls suggesting the outcome is too close to call, the electoral choices of Scotland’s teenage voters could be crucial.

Young Scots, like their older compatriots, are divided on the question of independence. Saffron Dixon, 16, from Glasgow, says she is a definite ‘yes’.

“I think that the people of Scotland deserve to live in a democratic society where they always get the government they vote for. The only way to achieve this is through independence.”

Seventeen-year-old Ian, also from Glasgow, wants Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom. “My dad and grandfather and other members of my family have fought and died under the Union Jack, to keep it maintained as a union so why break it up?” says Ian, who hopes to join the Royal Air Force but is concerned about the uncertain future of the defense forces in an independent Scotland. 

The decision to extend the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds was derided as a politically motivated ploy by Scottish nationalist leader Alex Salmond. But if anything the youngest cohort of voters seem less receptive to the independence message than their slightly older peers. Over half of 16- and 17-year-olds said that they intended to vote "no," when polled earlier this summer.

Concerns that young people would be attracted by superficial arguments about national identity have been confounded, says Jan Eichhorn of Edinburgh University who has been extensively studying Britain’s newest voters. “The big issue for 16- and 17-year-olds is economics. It is the same as for the rest for the adult population,” says Dr. Eichorn.

Young voters seem even less swayed by appeals to Scottishness and Britishness than the rest of the electorate. “They are less likely to favor one identity over another. More say they feel equally Scottish and British” compared to the rest of the population, says Eichhorn. “They seem more cross-border in outlook, more transnational.”

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Young voters are often turned off by mainstream politics, but they appear far more engaged by today's referendum. Schools and teachers have played a key role in promoting non-partisan debate, says Eichhorn.

“Young people are very active and engaged because it’s going to affect them more than any other generation,” said Kyle Thornton, 19. Kyle is chair of the Scottish Youth Parliament, a non-political assembly that meets three times a year to discuss issues affecting young people. “They’re thinking about the long-term effects of the vote. What will the jobs of the future look like?”

Regardless of how young Scots vote today, Eichhorn believes that the evidence supports widening the franchise for all elections. “This could have a really positive effect on political participation," he says.