Our election is just weeks away and it could be decided by a handful of votes. First time voters and other young voters are likely to be among those least likely to turn out. At the last election 37 per cent of enrolled 18-24 year olds didn't vote.

This is deeply troubling. The Association of Former MPs think it presents a very real threat to the principles of democracy. This year we have again sponsored an election-year essay competition for secondary school students.

More than 40 students from around the country addressed the topic: "How would you increase young peoples' understanding and participation in the democratic process?"

A call for education about government, politics and elections was the most frequent recommendation. The participating students expressed a strong interest in seeing a political system in New Zealand that was more accessible and responsive to their ideas, more open to their perspectives, more interested in developing policies and programmes which reflect their concerns and future prospects.

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Our judges, Victoria University politics lecturer Professor Stephen Levine and educator Rosemary Scott, found a consensus that more can be done to promote interest and participation among young New Zealanders.

One student wrote, "There should be compulsory education about politics and government in secondary school, covering how the entire process works."

Others wrote, "We are a generation of youth who have been failed by our elders. No one has taught us about politics and voting in-depth" and, "In my school career I have never once been introduced to the topic of politics, let alone taught how democracy works".

Students favoured online registration and voting, observing that online banking is considered sufficiently secure to be used by government institutions. Preferably this should be via smartphones.

Many students urged development of an "app" or a website on which all political parties' policies could be listed so young people could become better informed about parties, what they stand for and their differences.

There were many calls for the voting age to be lowered to 16, consistent with other adult choices. If introduced at 16, it was argued students would be "taught the culture of being interested, attentive voters, therefore inspiring them to vote all through their lives".

Even if the voting age were not lowered to 16 (or 17), it was suggested students should be given the opportunity to enrol to vote while at school, becoming effective when the student turns 18.

It was pointed out that young people do have an interest in politics - witness their fascination with overseas events such as the US election and Brexit- but when it comes to New Zealand the absence of a comparable sense of crisis or fateful decision-making makes this country's politics seem tame or boring.

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Not that we should address this by creating scandals and riots but we do need to consider why young voters are so disinterested in our own elections, and why they feel excluded and unheard.

Students were critical of politicians who attempted to engage without really listening. Many felt patronised and stereotyped.

Politics doesn't address our problems and therefore it is irrelevant, wrote one, suggesting that young people were turned off by the cynicism they saw in some politicians.

They said MPs and political parties should not offer unresearched sops to young people merely to gain their vote but canvas the views of young people about the real issues.

There were calls for greater interaction by MPs including increased school visits (although these were not always welcomed by principals and teachers). The Association of Former MPs is keen to use its membership base (which is inevitably about to increase in a few weeks) to supplement school visits by new and returning MPs.

Former MPs also want to see the ideas suggested by students in this competition picked up by the next Minister of Education, working with the Association of Secondary Principals, teacher organisations and others to form a group that develops some of the students' suggestions as a pilot scheme. An obvious target group is current Year 9 and 10 students who will be voting in the next election in 2020.

Thomas Jefferson once wrote that it was education, not the constitutional arrangements for which he was famed that provide "the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty".

• Graeme Reeves was National MP for Miramar, 1990-93. He is president of the Association of Former Members of Parliament NZ. Essay award winner, Sean Chan of Wellington High School will be presented with his prize by the Governor-General at a function at Government House today.