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Getting Young People to Flex Their Political Muscle

By Wendy Dinsdale, Researcher at MMResearch™


Allowing the citizens of a nation to choose their own leaders is the core principle underlying democracies throughout the world. As those elected set policies to address the needs of their voters, a gap in voter turnout from a certain group may mean their concerns have little or no representation.

Although New Zealand enjoys a strong overall enrolled voter turnout (79% in the 2008 election; 81% in 2005, ranking us eighth out of the 30 OECD countries1), it is somewhat worrying to see that turnout among young people (aged 18 to 24) is proportionately much lower than all other age groups. In the 2008 election, 19% (78,000) of young, eligible Kiwis did not register to vote - nearly as many as all the other age groups combined2. Not only do the youth lag behind in terms of the numbers enrolled to vote, but also in terms of how many actually show up on voting day.

This is a recurring phenomenon not just in New Zealand but in many other democracies around the world. For example, the youth turnout in the 2004 US election was just 47% (of citizens aged 18-24), compared to the other age groups which averaged 67%3. Similarly, in the UK the youth turnout was estimated at a lowly 37% for the 2005 election, compared to an average of 64% for the other age groups4.

If the issues important to the youth of today - who will inevitably become the leaders of tomorrow - are not addressed, it can lead to disenfranchisement which has the potential to debilitate a country in the long run. This has (rightly so) been recognised by many as a major issue, and we are now seeing dedicated research undertaken to identify the reasons underlying the low participation rates of young people in the voting process. This article takes a look at some of the most recent research done in this area, and investigates how this may have influenced campaigning in this election season, here and in the US.

What do we know about this issue?

In 2007, the NZ Electoral Commission commissioned a qualitative study 5 which involved speaking to a group of young non-voters in an attempt to identify segments and the barriers they face. From the 34 low-medium income participants spoken with, five distinct segments were identified: 'Politically Absent', 'Living for the Weekend', 'Distrustful and Disillusioned', 'Tentative Triers' and 'Confident and Convinced'. Although 'Confident and Convinced' and 'Tentative Triers' are motivated to vote, the barriers which prevent the former from showing up on voting day are unforeseen or unavoidable events, whereas the latter are just too overwhelmed and intimidated by the political process.

The remaining three groups are much less motivated to participate on voting day. Whilst the 'Distrustful and Disillusioned' are knowledgeable about the political process, their main barrier is that they are frustrated by and distrustful of politicians. Both lack of motivation and lack of political knowledge act as barriers for the 'Politically Absent' and 'Living for the Weekend'. The former is more affected by low literacy rates, and lack of access to communication and transport. Whereas the latter is completely apathetic to events they do not perceive as having any impact on their day-to-day lives.

Another qualitative New Zealand study, conducted in 2007, looked at why some people aged 18 to 24 voted in the 2005 election and why some did not6. From this study, three young non-voter segments were identified in a similar vein to the above. The first segment of non-voters, 'Disinterested', tend to be indifferent toward politics, have low knowledge of it, and have little motivation to participate in the voting process. The second segment, 'Inconvenienced', rate the difficulties with the enrolment and/or voting process as the primary barrier for not voting. The final segment, 'Principled', do not vote due to personal convictions relating to the perceived ineffectiveness of their vote. This segment also tends to believe that the voting process is not the most effective means of influencing policies, preferring for example protesting, volunteering or petitioning. Indeed, findings from another study suggest that young voters' cynicism regarding politics is often directed at political parties and figures rather than the issues themselves7.

In 2004, a publication by Harvard University8 identified other potential factors which may prevent young people from voting. According to this publication, the greatest factor in determining whether a young person votes is whether their parents also voted in previous elections. Some other factors include the decline of civics education in schools, difficulties navigating the voting process itself, and young people seeing voting as an ineffective means to bring about change.

Another publication, also released in 2004, summarised the findings of research conducted by the Electoral Commission of the UK. It states that non-registration is one of several key obstacles to political participation for young people. Some of the other barriers include political alienation, apathy, knowledge and inconvenience. These factors are reportedly being compounded by a greater sense among young people that voting is a right rather than a duty.

What are we doing about it?

All of these studies identify similar themes, namely lack of knowledge/accessibility ("I'm in the dark") and motivation/relevance ("It's not on my wavelength")5 as the overarching barriers to youth engagement with the voting process. It was therefore positive to see in the election season just passed, both in the US and New Zealand, political parties and non-partisan organisations proactively launching initiatives to minimise or remove these barriers.

Let's take a look at issues relating to voting accessibility first. Attempts were made to address the 'inconvenience' aspect in the 2008 US election by encouraging early voting, increasing the number of polling booths, and providing transport to and from the polls where needed. In New Zealand, the registration process was made simpler by making enrolment forms available in various fast food restaurants, liquor stores and shopping complexes9. Voting awareness campaigns were also held in universities, utilising student media and text messaging to encourage enrolment10.

Technology has also aided in reducing the knowledge/accessibility barrier by providing ready access to young people with an internet connection. In addition to dedicated websites for those who wanted to learn about the voting process or politics in general, social networking websites (such as Facebook and Bebo) received a lot of attention from political parties in an attempt to garner the youth vote11. This marks a departure from the traditional channels used in previous campaigns, which almost exclusively focused on distributing information via newspapers, mailbox drops and mainstream television.

Initiatives aimed at addressing lack of motivation and indifference attempted to convey to young people the message that voting is both relevant and a responsibility. In the US election, college students volunteered in historic numbers for the then-Democratic nominee Barack Obama's ground campaign. They were responsible for reaching out to fellow young people via social networking, phone banking, and most importantly, meeting their peers face-to-face to discuss relevant political issues.

Celebrity involvement, in the form of endorsements and non-partisan 'voting awareness' programmes, were also heavily used to increase youth involvement and help illuminate why voting is both relevant and a responsibility. This year also saw a much bigger push by MTV's "Choose or Lose" campaign, along with the entertainment industry's "Rock the Vote", and a non-partisan non-profit campaign titled "Declare Yourself", all pushing the issues.

MTV's "Choose or Lose" used celebrity spokespeople to highlight political events and issues, whereas "Rock the Vote" encouraged young people to register and vote through the use of music, pop culture and new technologies (such as YouTube and text messaging). This included sending more than 100,000 mobile subscribers text message reminders, phoning 13,300 youths with reminders, and providing shuttles to and from voting locations12.

'Declare Yourself' launched several marketing campaigns underlining voting as a responsibility, using the tagline "Only You Can Silence Yourself". This included pictures of celebrities (such as Jessica Alba and Christina Aquilera) with their mouths bound as a way to symbolise the importance of 'being heard'13.

So what's the situation in a nutshell?

In summary, lack of youth participation in the voting process is an issue facing many democracies today. As a consequence, it is now receiving attention from researchers to uncover the underlying reasons for this trend. This has resulted in the identification of specific non-voter segments, attitudes and physical barriers that are contributing to low youth turnout.

It is promising to see these findings are shaping initiatives, by both political groups and non-partisan organisations, that are encouraging young people to flex their political muscle. I, for one, will be eagerly keeping an eye on what happens in the next few elections as these initiatives start to have an increasingly prominent effect. The indications are good: the 2008 US election saw the largest youth turnout since 1972, when 18 year olds were first given the opportunity to vote.














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