International report

One citizen, one vote: meet Scotland’s new electors on the eve of a telling test

Audio 06:37
Where do you keep your polling card?
Where do you keep your polling card? REUTERS/Russell Cheyne

For the first time ever, all Scottish citizens aged 16 and over will have the right to vote, regardless of nationality. Previously, only British, EU and Commonwealth citizens were allowed to take part. In Thursday's parliamentary elections, thousands from further afield, including refugees, will now be able to cast their ballots. 

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For Natalia Urban, a Brazilian journalist who has lived in the UK since 2015, learning that she would at last be able to participate in this democratic exercise was an emotional moment, especially after the past few years. She felt the debate about the treatment of EU citizens overshadowed the question of extra-European immigration.

“It might sound silly, but I cried,” she remembers. “I’ve always been a very political person. It is very important that the Scottish government decided that my opinion was important.”

Software engineer Claudia Menting has, for the very first time, used her postal vote to elect her MSPs. Because she holds a dual American-Italian citizenship, she has, up until now, only been able to vote in a handful of elections.

“It was as if you were only allowed bits of the puzzle. If you’re only getting one vote, it doesn’t feel like it counts. I definitely feel more involved in this election”, she says.

Nadia Kanyange is not only able to take part in the vote, but she is standing as a Scottish Green Party candidate in Glasgow. She arrived in the UK in 2003, seeking asylum from Burundi, an East African country plunged into a devastating civil war from 1993 to 2005. The Green candidate got into Scottish politics thanks to a political shadowing scheme with SNP MSP Clare Adamson: she had the opportunity to follow her in Parliament and in her constituency near Glasgow.

“The interest came into me and I thought this was something I could really do for my community and the people. So when the opportunity came with the Greens, I thought I could bring something”, she says.

With a big part of the population now able to make their voice heard, Natalia Urban believes that Scottish politics will become more inclusive and change for the better.

“Our participation matters because we’re bringing a new vision of Scotland”, the journalist, “and bring something new to the political scenario. We want to know that the country to which we’re contributing does something for you in return as well.”

Claudia Menting agrees, and wonders where the UK would be today had EU citizens been given the right to vote in the 2016 EU membership referendum which led to Brexit.

“If we had all been given the chance to vote, would you have not rather voted in your favour, to help yourself, your community and to make a difference? I would encourage people to vote: you are part of this country”, she argues.

Having more diverse lived experiences in Parliament could have a real, positive impact on the policy-making process, according to Nadia Kanyange. Her experience of dealing with the UK’s asylum system is always going to inform her choices as a politician.

“I’ve always wanted to see a radical change in the way asylum seekers and refugees are treated. Unfortunately, immigration is a reserved power, so we don’t get to decide”, she says. “That’s why I’m pro-independence, then Scotland can have its own immigration law. My focus will be on human rights, social justice, equal opportunities, and climate change.”

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