What America Can Learn From Scotland’s Independence Referendum

On September 18th, Scotland voted on a national referendum that simply asked its people, “Should Scotland be an independent country?” This was a momentous vote, and would have downsized the British Commonwealth to a measly 52 nations had it passed.

(SPOILER) As you may know, however, Scotland voted 55.3%-44.7% in favor of “No,” thereby maintaining ties to Great Britain. I’ll not pretend to know the significance of this vote, what it would have entailed had they gained independence (though I imagine the economic consequences would have been very interesting), etc. I haven’t researched that, and don’t intend to misinform.

While that would certainly be an interesting (though theoretical) discussion, I think there is something much more important Americans can take from this referendum: something much simpler.

First, Scotland disallows exit polls. Exit polls are polls done of citizens immediately after they leave the voting booth. This allows media outlets to get a feel for how the vote will turn out so they have something to blather about before the votes are actually counted. While many argue to outlaw them as Scotland has is to rob citizens of visibility of the political climate of their nation, I say: shut up and wait.

Up until the day of a vote, the speeches have been made, the media have exhaustively covered the issue, etc. Why do we need more coverage a mere hours before there will be a definitive result? The media have nothing else to say that hasn’t been said in the preceding months and even years. Not only are exit polls unnecessary, they’re also expensive and often inaccurate.

Exit polling has already been cancelled in many state elections as of 2012. While any start is good news, I wish this would spread to all states and to the national level. This is one thing Scotland definitely has right, and we should follow suit.

But Scotland’s stance on exit polling is a minor lesson compared to this next one. You see, 84.5% of Scotland’s VEP (Voting Eligible Population) turned up at the polls to cast their vote. That is a hugely significant statistic, and is in fact record-setting.

Let’s contrast that to the voter turnout in the 2012 US Presidential Election. On that day in November, only 58.2% of America’s VEP showed up to vote. Barely half of our nation’s voters cared enough to get to the polls and have a say in who would lead our country for the next four years.

In order to bring those statistics to life for you, imagine it this way: In order to get our 2012 turnout from 58.2% to 84.5%, we would have needed around 82.56 million more voters at the polls. That’s roughly the combined populations of California, Texas and New York—states otherwise notable for being the three most populous in the US.

At this point, I feel obligated to tell you that voter turnouts in Scotland’s recent parliamentary elections have not been nearly as illustrious as that of the independence referendum; rather, they’ve seen numbers more reminiscent of those in America. That said, I don’t think my point is moot. Instead, it shows what happens when an issue arises that really lights a fire in citizens (pun intended, Colorado and Washington—but seriously, look at those numbers).

If issues in which people take more interest draw out more typically apolitical citizens to vote, then the problem isn’t only in our effort—it’s in our apathy.

We simply don’t care enough about our elections. America has become a democracy in which barely half her citizens exercise their primary democratic duty.

But this is not cause for concern only when the presidential election comes around. Because of how our government is structured, many people argue that voting in local and state elections is more important than voting in national elections. Regardless of whether you agree with that, you need only turn to gubernatorial election statistics to find numbers that are generally even more abysmal. Although there are feel-good states like Oregon (70%, round of applause), the majority of states’ turnouts hover around 50%. The most horrifying is New York, where an embarrassing 36.48% of the VEP showed up in 2010. Keep in mind, this is the state where many major media outlets go to the streets to take polls on various issues. So there’s that.

Many Americans have good reasons for not voting though, right? Well…no. This poll, containing data collected over the past twelve years, has in fact found that some people were willing but unable to vote. I consider illness or disability (14%), transportation problems (3%) and bad weather conditions (1%) to be reasonable excuses.

However, it has also outed non-voters who do not seem to have good excuses. I do not consider lack of interest (16%), dislike of candidates or issues (13%), being out of town (6%), forgetting your ID (4%) or the vague but strongly present “other” (11%) as valid. These should be lumped together for a whopping 50% under “too apathetic” (“IDGAF” for the Gen-Y crowd).

This disinterested “spectator-democracy” isn’t just scary, it’s also not what American elections are supposed to be like. We have a voice for a reason, and while your vote may feel insignificant, it most certainly is not. You’re part of the aggregate—a small part, but a part equal to everyone else who steps in the ballot box (in terms of voting—money as free speech is a different issue for a much longer and more headache-inducing article).

Let’s wrap this up with a mainstream metaphor. Speaking to a noble Scotsman in Braveheart, William Wallace rightly claims the following:

There’s a difference between us. You think the people of this country exist to provide you with position. I think your position exists to provide those people with freedom. And I go to make sure that they have it.

Wallace’s badassery aside, this highlights an often forgotten truth: American leaders have power because it is given to them by the people. We, as a body, elect them. Their roles exist to ensure and maintain our rights, and by not turning out en masse to vote for those leaders, we are sacrificing our rights.

I believe the amount of complaining about political issues is inversely proportionate to civic involvement. We are living in a period of shamefully low civic activity (as indicated by our voting numbers) and, inversely, infuriatingly high political discontent. If we as a society are not happy with the state of our nation, then we need to flip that ratio.

Is it really that simple? Of course not. But wherever the buck may stop, it begins with us, and showing up to vote is a good way to start.


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