Young people are much less likely to vote than older people, so how can we get younger voters to engage? Or does it even matter?

The politics of age is getting a lot of attention this election. "Generational politics" is said to explain much of what is going on when it comes to issues around housing, superannuation, and inequality. And youth non-voting is seen as a major factor in declining voter turnout, with predictions that once again few young people will turn out on polling day.

Over recent months there's been a plethora of news items and arguments about why young people are turning away from parliamentary politics, and what might change this. The leading ideas seem to be, in order of popularity: 1) Civics education in schools, 2) Having more young people in Parliament and as candidates, and 3) Lowering the voting age to 16. But, which of these ideas has the most merit? Or are they missing the point entirely?

Forecasts of further youth voting decline

The increasing concern about low voter participation is nicely put in today's Stuff article by Richard Shaw of Massey University - see: Voter silence means we're destroying our democracy.

Shaw draws particular attention to young people being at the core of the problem: "Crucially - because age cuts right across every socio-cultural category - the trend is perhaps most pronounced amongst young people. In 2014 only 75 per cent of eligible voters aged 18 to 24 enrolled, and one third of those who did enrol did not vote at all. (So far, 65 per cent of eligible voters in this cohort have registered for this year's election.) Roughly the same figures applied for those between the ages of 25 to 29 and they weren't that much better for people aged between 30 to 34. The turnout at the last election amongst those aged 18 to 29 was less than 50 per cent. In short, an entire generation is at risk of being lost to politics. If this trend continues, shortly the only people standing outside polling booths will be elderly."

There's reason to believe the problem will get worse in this year's general election. A recent survey of young voters suggests that almost 60 per cent of 18-25-year-olds don't know which party to vote for, and "less than half were confident at least one party represented their interests" - see the Herald's More than half of young voters haven't picked a party.

This is a problem, because according Robert Bree - the chief executive of the Research Association of New Zealand, who ran the survey - "there is a strong connection between people not knowing who they are going to vote for and people who don't vote at all" - see Jason Walls' Another election of low voter turnout among young people expected (paywalled).

Bree gives some indication of why young people are disengaged: "there is also a large number of young people who don't think the election [campaign] process is well conducted - almost 40 per cent." He also says "there is a 'general disbelief' in some of the information that is coming out of the political parties and a sense of confusion about what some of the parties policies actually are, as well as what MPs are saying."

Solution #1: Civics education

Should schools be made responsible for instilling a desire and ability for young people to participate in the democratic process? This seems to have become the number one proposal of those concerned about voter turnout decline.

Max Harris - author of the new book, The New Zealand Project - has been pushing this as the answer, and recently appeared on TVNZ's Q+A programme advocating for it - see: Rhodes Scholar calls for civics education to better engage young people in politics.

And last week RNZ gave a strong push for a new group advocating the introduction of compulsory civics classes to the education curriculum. Jesse Mulligan interviewed Peter McKenzie about such solutions. RNZ reported that McKenzie saying "in the past there was a greater sense of citizenship in New Zealand, with children learning about it through life, rather than in the classroom. That's not happening any more, he says, and education about citizenship and voting is limited to what's in the high school social studies curriculum. McKenzie says that leaves a gap between learning about the basics of society and being able to put that into practice by voting" - see: Engaging youth in civics.

For an elaboration on some of these points, see Marcus Stickley's separate interview with McKenzie on RNZ's The Wireless: 'How To Adult' classes, online voting and other ideas to get more young people voting. In this, McKenzie says that young people "don't think the system is working for them - in terms of housing prices, in terms of employment and educational outcomes and in terms of general life quality - they think the system itself can't be changed."

McKenzie's group, Active Citizenship Aotearoa, want to dissuade youth of the view that the system is rigged against them, and help young people see that voting can actually fix the problems in society. And he disagrees with any notion that there is a problem with what politicians are offering voters, emphasising that "there's a breadth of political opportunities" amongst the parties who have plenty of good policies for people to choose from.

The group is holding its first event, funded by the Ministry of Youth Development, on July 3 in Porirua, which is a "summit for high school students (Year 11 - 13) who reside in the Wellington region" - see: Shaping Aotearoa Summit.

Prime Minister Bill English. Photo/Mark Mitchell
Prime Minister Bill English. Photo/Mark Mitchell

Solution #2: Young politicians will inspire young voters

The people standing for - and elected to - Parliament tend to be older than the average adult member of society. This is because traditionally people have gone into politics after gaining life experience, careers elsewhere, and a proven public standing. But this has meant that the demographics of politicians has been unrepresentative of young people.

Increasingly this is pointed to as being a factor in driving youth non-voting. Essentially this view is that if young people don't see people of their own age represented in Parliament and elections then they will be more alienated from such institutions. Young people will find it hard to identify with the older politicians, and vice versa.

Therefore, the answer is for political parties to have much more age diversity amongst their candidates. The Green Party is leading this campaign, with a number of more youthful MPs and candidates. For some discussion of this, see RNZ's Greens target youth vote with fresh faces. In this, various Green candidates and young political commentators argue that having youthful MPs and candidates will lead to a greater likelihood of young people wanting to vote.

Of course, there are plenty of challenges to this demographic-driven argument. And they point to the success of various radical - and older - politicians who have appealed to large numbers of the young. Last month, for example, a Dominion Post editorial made this point: "Young people voted heavily for Barack Obama and for Democratic party contender Bernie Sanders. The fact that Sanders was well into his 70s also shows that age isn't always a handicap in reaching the young" - see: It's not just young voters who aren't interested.

Furthermore, "The attempt by the Greens and the Labour Party to woo youth voters by promoting young parliamentary candidates is clearly in the parties' own interests, and it might help involve young people more generally. The young are less invested in the status quo and tend to the liberal side, although this is a tendency and not a rule. But Sanders's success suggests that policies matter more than age itself. His radical rejection of the status quo struck a chord with young Americans."

Political commentator Liam Hehir, age 31, also takes issue with this: "Younger candidates are sometimes offered as a solution to the supposed problem. This is a form of identity politics. The idea is that young voters 'switch off' when confronted by too many older candidates. This seems to be a Green Party strategy for the general election this year ... But I have my doubts about the strategy. Recent overseas experience is that young people don't mind voting for older candidates" - see: Lack of ambition is not the reason young people don't vote.

Hehir also draws attention to the recent French presidential election, in which the young seemed to vote for older candidates, and the more elderly voted for younger candidates. In contrast, he warns against New Zealand's "cult of youth", and suggests that more complicated issues explain declining youth voter turnout.


Solution #3: Lowering the voting age

Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft has managed to get the idea of lowering the voting age on the public agenda this year, as a proposal for fixing the voter turnout problem. He did this back in March on National Children's Day, arguing that "it's a good time to think about lowering the voting age to 16" - see Ceinwen Curtis' Children's day highlights push for younger voting age.

As this news report says, the idea has been pushed for some time by Sue Bradford, but it has always had very little traction. The article points to other countries where the age is lower: "The voting age is 16 in Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Guernsey, Isle of Man, Jersey and Scotland, and it is age 17 in Indonesia, Korea, North Seychelles, Sudan and Timor-Leste."

Commenting in favour of the proposal, Jimmy Ellingham has written that "Arguments against the move seem to focus on a so-called lack of full development and apparent tendency for teens to simply mirror their parents' thoughts. These are spurious and patronising" - see: Lowering the voting age to 16 must happen soon.

He also points out, "You could mount a similar argument that there should be an upper limit on voting as older people have less of a stake in the country's future. Rightly, nobody is suggesting such a ridiculous and discriminatory move."

The Prime Minister has already given the idea the thumbs-down - see the Herald's Bill English says voting age shouldn't be reduced to 16.

And National MP Chester Borrows has made an interesting case against the idea too: "to give them the vote before they are educated and experienced in life enough to make truly informed decisions would be a disaster. Children of this young age are hardly likely to have found their ideological positioning or anything like it but I feel that allowing under 18-year-olds to vote will not result in them taking a sudden interest in political parties or election issues. On the whole our young people are concerned with specific issues and causes and so are politically active in other ways through signing petitions and going on protests. And where will we draw the line? Will we be considering the vote for 14-year-olds soon?" - see: Lowering the voting age is more than just changing the number.

For those who want to push this option, you can sign the ActionStation online petition: Lower the voting age to 16 and teach civics education in schools. Currently it only has 215 signees.

Undoubtedly, there are plenty of other "solutions" to the youth voter turnout problem. And as the Dominion Post editorial (cited above) suggests, "the problem of youth voting is part of a deeper malaise, and it might not be fixable unless the deeper problem is also fixed. Unfortunately, there are no easy fixes."

Quite rightly, the newspaper suggests that the bigger problem might actually lie with what is on offer from the politicians: "the deeper problem is that many voters, old as well as young, have lost interest. The reasons are complex, but part of it is the dullness and stasis of politics right now. Under John Key the Government had a knack of making just enough change to encourage voter sleepiness, making the election outcome seem a foregone conclusion. Labour's utter failure as an opposition added to the torpor."

And maybe we shouldn't be worried about young people being disengaged with official electoral politics, as long as they aren't being apathetic. This is one of the points made by Victoria Crockford of The Collective Project: "The thing is, we are engaged in politics. It just isn't politics as usual. Gen-rent might not stress conceptions of duty-bound citizenship, but we get behind democratic principles, and democratic values. Low participation in voting does not mean low engagement in politics" - see: It's not politics as usual for millennials.

She says: "As a cohort millennials are extremely purpose-focused and seek to integrate the political causes they care about into their daily lives - not just on voting day. We're also active contributors in the increasingly powerful online public sphere. The idea that you can turn up to a polling booth every three years and expect a handful of political parties to be there representing your interests doesn't compute with many young New Zealanders".

Finally, perhaps greater political activity for youth will simply come through involvement in social issues and movements outside of parliamentary elections. And last week TVNZ's Seven Sharp briefly dealt with the issue of whether "millennials" are too disengaged, with one of the older generation making the case for taking on some hard political issues - see: 'We got kicked and beaten by cops' - Gary McCormick waves flag for Baby Boomers.