Opinion: Could UK election youth turnout be repeated here?

This month's UK election saw innovative efforts in encouraging turn-out of the youth vote.

By Professor Claire Robinson

Britain’s hung Parliament has been called a political earthquake but if the seismic shifts are examined more closely it’s a youthquake that has altered the Westminster landscape.

 According to a New Musical Express-led exit poll from last week’s election, turnout among those aged under 35 rose by 12 points to 56 per cent compared with the last UK election in 2015.

The poll found that 36 per cent were first time voters and that half of the 18 to 24 year-olds went to the polls with a friend or family member suggesting that such innovative but direct online appeals on social media by identities like activist singer-songwriter Billy Bragg, urging young people to embrace the generational divide and take their grandparent with them to the polling booth, hit home.

Other innovations such as the development of a tinder bot app that matched a young prospective voter’s dating profile with others, while encouraging wider youth engagement, also left a digital footprint.

Further factors like the carrot of free university tuition were clearly at work too, but evidence is emerging that young would-be voters were engaged for the first time in a long time to have their say on election day.

It’s become a bit of a stereotype to say that young people are apathetic and disengaged from the democractic process. The recent British election result shows that they will engage when there is something or someone that gets them engaged. 

Nonetheless the fact remains that those who regularly turn out to vote in national elections across advanced democracies are systematically unrepresentative of the eligible population. They are significantly wealthier, older, more educated, and more likely to be white compared to eligible non-voters. Young people, ethnic minorities, and the poor are significantly underrepresented in the electorate.

As a proportion of the population of young people aged 18-29, only 47% voted in the 2014 New Zealand general election. Compare this to the other end of the age spectrum, where around 87% of the over 65s voted.

While there is some evidence that voting comes with maturity, there is still reason to be concerned about the low number of youth voters. If young people don’t vote, governments fail to hear and appreciate their viewpoints. The more governments ignore the needs of young people when developing public policy, the more young people think their vote isn’t important. This is referred to as the ‘cycle of mutual neglect’.

Raising voter turnout amongst least representative groups is therefore a recognised public policy issue for governments in most developed nations. But most governments, ours included, have also been spectacularly unsuccessful in halting the decline. In part this is because official electoral agencies have tended to be more focused on informing voters on when and how to vote, rather than helping them understand why voting is important. Voting is a ‘behavioural anchor’, meaning a good experience in their first exposure to voting increase the chances of someone valuing voting, and therefore voting again.

 For voting to become a long-term habit gaining awareness and developing an interest in politics and the importance of voting needs to take place before a first-time voter even decides to make their first vote. High amongst the many reasons for youth non-voting are that they don’t know enough about the differences between parties and candidates, and don’t know how to decide between them.

Educating young voters about the importance of voting, informing them about the issues in elections and the differences between party positions is one of the objectives of the Design + Democracy Project, a research unit within the College of Creative Arts at Massey University. The Project is currently developing On the Fence 2017, an online tool designed to increase youth voter turnout in New Zealand’s general election on September 23.

On the Fence 2017 builds on the success of previous versions of the online tool, known technically as a a Voter Advice Application, created by the Design+Democracy Project including VoteLocal. Using a gamified digital interface that is familiar to young people, a visual and verbal vernacular that is accessible to a youth audience, and an ability to share the results on social media VoteLocal guided people towards finding a best match for them in 2016’s mayoral elections in Auckland, Wellington and Palmerston North.

Around 60% of the users of VoteLocal were under 35. 30.7% said they had notvoted in local elections before. 86.1% said VoteLocal improved their understanding about what local councils do, and 41% of users said VoteLocal motivated them to vote.

VoteLocal’s impact was acknowleged in Australia last week when it won the social innovation category of the Good Design Australia Awards that has been rewarding innovation and excellence in design since 1958.

 In making the award the jurors commented that VoteLocal is “a ground-breaking initiative that has the ability to be scaled up and foster better outcomes for representative politics at a time when our world needs it most”.

So keep your eyes peeled for the launch closer to the election of On the Fence 2017, theonline game-like questionnaire that, like the growing sense of engagement in the UK, seeks to help young New Zealanders become serious players on the political scene here.

Professor Claire Robinson is a political commentator and Pro Vice-Chancellor of the College of Creative Arts at Massey University




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