There are clear trends in attitude towards democracy and in voting rates for younger citizens that indicate a lack of appreciation of the benefits of a democratic form of government, and a lack of interest in participation in the political process. This is a troubling development that is addressed in a recent issue of The Economist. The discussion is broken into an executive summary article, Vote early, vote often: Why the voting age should be lowered to 16, and a more detailed coverage in Millennials across the rich world are failing to vote.
“The trend across the West is disturbing…. Turnout of American voters under 25 at presidential elections fell from 50% in 1972 to 38% in 2012; among over-65s it rose from 64% to 70% (data for the 2016 election are not yet available). For congressional races, the under-25 vote was a dire 17% in 2014. A similar pattern is repeated across the rich world.”
This chart was provided to make the case that people over 55 are much more likely to vote than those under age 25.
The general results are troubling enough, but the data from Israel and Britain are indicative of something being terribly wrong.
The young are going to become even more marginalized by demographic changes.
“In America’s election in 1972, the first in which 18-year-olds could vote, around a fifth of adults were under 25. By 2010 that share was one in eight. Under-25s are on track to make up just a tenth of American adults by mid-century. The young will have dwindled from a pivotal voting bloc into a peripheral one.”
The withdrawal of the young from the political process has moved The Economist to suggest we are moving towards a “gerontocracy” where older voters, with less at stake in the distant future, will vote their interests while the young will have to live with the consequences.
To address this issue one must first arrive at an explanation for why the young behave as they do. It is suggested that personal circumstances encountered at the time they become eligible to vote make it difficult to develop the habit of voting.
“In Britain only three in five of under-25s watch the news on television, compared with nine in ten of over-55s. Young people are also less likely to read newspapers, or listen to the news on the radio. Each year around a third of British 19-year-olds move house; the average American moves four times between 18 and 30. People who have children and own a home feel more attached to their communities and more concerned about how they are run. But youngsters are settling down later than their parents did.”
“Voting habits are formed surprisingly early—in a person’s first two elections, says Michael Bruter of the London School of Economics. If future generations, discouraged by their fading influence, never adopt the voting habit, turnout will fall further, weakening the legitimacy of elected governments.”
Some believe there is a fundamental shift in attitudes that has developed among the young in recent years. They tend to think of themselves as individuals with particular interests and concerns rather than as members of a society with shared concerns.
“Millennials do not see voting as a duty, and therefore do not feel morally obliged to do it, says Rob Ford of Manchester University. Rather, they regard it as the duty of politicians to woo them. They see parties not as movements deserving of loyalty, but as brands they can choose between or ignore. Millennials are accustomed to tailoring their world to their preferences, customising the music they listen to and the news they consume. A system that demands they vote for an all-or-nothing bundle of election promises looks uninviting by comparison.”
While the young express general agreement with liberal political and social goals, that does not mean they are willing to identify and support a political party espousing those goals.
“Although the number of young Americans espousing classic liberal causes is growing, only a quarter of 18- to 33-year-olds describe themselves as ‘Democrats’. Half say they are independent, compared with just a third of those aged 69 and over, according to the Pew Research Centre.”
As the participation rates for the young remain low, politicians focus their efforts on those most likely to vote. The relative lack of communication with the political process encourages the tendency of the young to feel uninvolved with these activities.
“In 1967 around a quarter of both young and old voters in America had previously made contact with a political official. For the elderly, the rate had almost doubled by 2004; for the young, it remained flat at 23%. Parties have responded accordingly: in 2012 they contacted three-fifths of older voters, but only 15% of younger ones. According to a poll weeks before last year’s presidential election by the Centre for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University (CIRCLE), despite the money sloshing around American politics only 30% of millennials reported having been contacted by one of the campaigns. And when parties do contact youngsters, it is often with a message crafted for voters in general, not tailored to them.”
The Economist suggests a few ways to facilitate voting for young people, although these will not necessarily create the desire to vote.
“A solution used in some other countries, including Sweden and Chile, is to put people on the electoral roll automatically when they turn 18. Also important is to make sure that those who have moved and forgotten to update their details are not caught out on election day; since young people move more, they are more likely to be affected. Some American states are experimenting with ‘portable’ voter registration, whereby a change of address with any government institution is transferred to the electoral register.”
Some countries have made voting compulsory.
“Those fretting about the future of democracy have been searching for ways to get more young people to vote. The most obvious would be to make voting compulsory, as it is in Australia, Belgium, Brazil and many other countries. Barack Obama has said such a move would be ‘transformative” for America, boosting the voices of the young and the poor.”
Making voting mandatory would certainly increase voting rates, but would it instill in people the feeling of community that would inspire them to participate willingly in the political process?
The main proposal espoused by The Economist is to encourage younger voting ages such as 16, an option being tried I some countries. The argument is based on the hypothesis that at the age of 16 the young are still students living with parents who can provide the example of voting as a civic duty. Data suggests that voting can become a habit, but the habit must be initiated.
Schools could also help in the process by providing experiences that generate interest in democratic processes. Holding mock votes between candidates or debating opposing sides on social issues would encourage social and political involvement.
“A lower voting age would strengthen the voice of the young and signal that their opinions matter. It is they, after all, who will bear the brunt of climate change and service the debt that paid for benefits, such as pensions and health care, of today’s elderly. Voting at 16 would make it easier to initiate new citizens in civic life. Above all, it would help guarantee the supply of young voters needed to preserve the vitality of democracy. Catch them early, and they will grow into better citizens.”
There is some indication that a lower voting age would increase the likelihood of greater future participation.
“In Scotland, where 16- and 17-year-olds were eligible to vote in the independence referendum in 2014, an impressive three-quarters of those who registered turned out on the day, compared with 54% of 18- to 24-year-olds.”
“Argentina, Austria and other countries are trying to ingrain voting habits earlier by lowering the minimum age to 16. This lets young people cast their first votes while still in school and living with their parents. In Austria, the only European country to let 16- and 17-year-olds vote nationwide, they have proved more likely than 18- to 20-year-olds to turn out in the first election for which they qualify to vote.”
The young, and others who have not developed the habit of voting regularly, can often be moved to jump into the process suddenly when an especially compelling politician appears or one overriding issue takes the political stage. The results can be significant—both for the good and the bad. Obama in 2008 greatly boosted voter participation. Canada had a similar experience recently.
“In Canada just 37% of 18- to 24-year-olds voted in the parliamentary election in 2008, and 39% in 2011. In 2015 the “Trudeau effect” saw the youth vote rise sharply, to 57%.”
The results of the US election of 2016 are still being processed and argued, but it seems likely that Donald Trump and his espoused policies generated a surge of interest on the part of voters who previously felt too marginalized to actively propagate their views, or encouraged those not likely to vote in the past to vote in this election. Democracy would have been better served if these voters had been actively participating all along in forming the political environment rather than suddenly upsetting the system.
Anything we can do to increase voter participation should be done.
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