Labour's Jacinda Ardern and National's Nikki Kaye on why young people aren't getting on the electoral roll and voting, and what can be done about it.
What seems like a long time ago now, I remember my class at university being given the opportunity to write a paper on any issue we wanted. I chose to try and answer the question that vexes politicians everywhere: why don't young people vote?
I've never thought that young politicians are especially well placed to answer that question; not from their own world view anyway. By definition, we are a bit odd. After all, how many young people do you know who, while still at school, sign themselves up to a lifetime of leaflet delivery and door knocking?
But while politics (at one end of the scale) can involve volunteer hours and does attract amazinngly motivated, engaged, and inspirational young people, the fact is that this is not the norm. For those politicians concerned about how short-sighted some of our decision making can be, and the lack of thought given to the next generation, young people's political disengagement is devastating.
The statistics make for depressing reading. Last election, the equivalent of almost 110,000 young people didn't enrol. That's roughly the same number of all the eligible voters in the city of Hamilton. Even two months out from this election, 1 in 4 young people aren't enrolled to vote. We can't simply bemoan the stats though without asking the much bigger question: why?
A few years ago the electoral commission decided to ask the same thing by interviewing a group of young people who had not voted in past elections. The reasons they didn't cast a vote were pretty varied. For some, the intention was there, but they just didn't make it on the day. For others the list wasn't just about circumstances. It included not feeling like their vote counted, not being sure of who to vote for or why, and those who made a conscience decision not to vote because they don't like what they see in politics and politicians.
My view on this is pretty simple: this has to be a two way street, and it starts with us. I totally agree that part of motivating young people to vote comes down to what we're doing as politicians; how we behave, how we communicate and the kinds of issues that we talk about. These are things that are all within our power to change. We have some perfect opportunities.
Barely a day goes by without a young person asking me a question about what we're doing to stand up for their generation. It's easy to think in three-year cycles when you're in politics, but if we're truly going to engage a new generation of voters, we have to show that we're planning for them. Whether it's protecting the environment, education issues, housing affordability or making sure we can afford for them to get a pension, we need to be more staunch of their behalf.
Then there's the question of politics itself. I remember when I was campaigning in London, hearing from quite a few eligible Kiwi voters that they weren't planning on having their say because "they didn't know enough." They may have been talking about current events, but I have heard the same thing from young voters here. We can, and should, do more to ensure that young people feel totally equipped to use the right and the privilege they have to vote. Our education system is the best place for that to happen and for years Labour has advocated strengthening our civics education; something we still have entrenched in our youth policy.
There's no denying that we could be doing a lot to improve young people's engagement in politics, but with little over two weeks till a general election, we have little time to spare. Voting is a right that we can ill afford to have anyone ignore, but with this years election so obviously about the direction the country will take for the next 30 years, my plea goes especially to young people. Please be heard.
More often than not when young people tell me they are not enrolled or not going to vote, the reasons they give are a bit heart breaking. They say things like "I don't feel it will make a difference" or "I can't relate to many politicians" or "I don't feel I know enough".
The best way that I've found to get these young people enrolled is to actually ask them what they care about and I'm often hugely impressed with the number of big issues they have considered very carefully. It doesn't matter who you vote for, our country is a lot stronger when more people actively participate in the political process.
I believe young New Zealanders care a lot about New Zealand and where our country is heading. While politicians have a greater responsibility to try and get more young people enrolled and voting I also think parents need to ensure that they communicate from a young age the importance of voting.
Before entering Parliament I had some sad experiences meeting and helping people from countries where they don't have the voice and democratic rights that we have as New Zealanders. For many of us the wars that our grandparents fought seem a long time ago, and that's why days like Anzac Day are so important. They remind us of those that fought for our freedom and right to vote.
We know that low youth voter enrolment and turnout is global and a long standing issue. It's a problem that tends to be a lot worse for younger groups right across the world and New Zealand does do comparatively well. However, we still need to do a lot better and personally I've been trying to do my bit by door knocking areas where there are lots of student flats, visiting tertiary campuses and trying to engage with younger people and groups online.
Over the past few years the Electoral Commission has made real efforts to encourage young people to vote. They've made enrolling simpler and more easily available. They've made registration forms available in fast food outlets, liquor stores, and shopping outlets. Campaigns are held throughout our universities and schools, and they are making the most of technology including internet, social networking sites, and mobile phones to connect with young voters.
This year they've provided a number of different ways to enrol to vote including via post, website, phone, text message, Facebook, and local post shops. And they've also run a great initiative called Kids Voting to encourage kids to engage with the political process, which has broken registration records. This is about engaging the next generation of voters early.
Social and online media provide a big opportunity to access more young people. I have probably had four times as many young people contact me with constituency queries or policy questions via Facebook and Twitter, than through my Parliamentary office.
I've been working on a cross-party group on open government that is focussed on improving access to Parliament including Question Time and MPs via social and online media. I believe that this piece of work could help bring more young people into political conversations and raise awareness of the policy debates that happen every day in our House of Representatives.
And it's not just about our method of communication. It's also about communicating better how policies affect young people. I think it is important that all political parties do better in communicating much longer term plans, rather than the three year cycle.
Since we've been elected we've put an extra $10.8 million into helping the Electoral Commission and the Electoral Enrolment Centre in their efforts to encourage people to enrol and vote in the election and the referendum.
One of the core principles of any democracy is the right of citizens to vote for who they want to lead their country. I believe there are few things more important for citizens to have a say on than how we govern ourselves and who we want to represent us. It's really important to take part in voting because if we don't vote we are putting the decisions about our future into the hands of others.
Every vote counts and young people have an especially important part to play because they are the future leaders of this great country. At this election I encourage all New Zealanders to value the freedom that our ancestors fought for by casting your vote on November 26.
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