Youth participation in elections has been regarded as low for decades.
In most of Europe and the US, the average of voters ages 18-24 is around 20-30%. According to OECD’s Participation rates of first-time voters (2016) “younger voters are less likely to cast their vote than the electorate in general: voter turnout among 18-to-24-year-olds is, on average, 17 percent lower than for adults aged 25 to 50 inclusive.”
In a democracy, all voices need to find a space. However, this is a substantial challenge when it comes to young voters. On average across OECD countries, one in four young people (15-to-29-year-olds) report that they are ‘not at all interested’ in politics, compared to one in five for the total population. There is an evident problem, and it goes beyond the polls, all the way to the disillusionment for the foundations of a democratic life (institutions, principles, expectations.)
The reason for the deficient participation in this age group ranges from apathy to lack of representation. Inadequate attention to youth issues, such as employment, housing, diversity, entrepreneurship support, and individual freedom, has met dissatisfaction and scepticism towards political parties, programs and the candidates themselves.
Fortunately, the last couple of years have revealed a subtle shift. For example, the youth turnout in elections in the US (2016) and the UK (2017) led to a favourable redistribution of political participation by age groups. It also brought hope for renewed youth engagement in politics and elections.
On the positive note, there has also been a surge in young leaders in power globally. Emmanuel Macron in France, Sebastian Kurz in Austria, Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand, Carlos Alvarado Quesada in Costa Rica, or Jüri Ratas in Estonia, are some examples of this kind of fresh leadership that can attract new voters to the polls. Young state leaders can be among the best promoters of youth engagement in politics.
Clamour for new technologies
Groups such as WebRoots Democracy in the UK argue that another problem young citizens face when deciding to participate in elections is that a traditional voting system feels alien to them.
Young people deal with most of their daily tasks using the Internet, tapping their phones or interacting with any other digital device. Hence bringing technology into the voting process could raise young voter’s participation in elections, experts argue.
Whether electronic voting is implemented directly in the polls or through online voting like in Estonia, this change of paradigm might be a brighter and more straightforward key to increasing participation.
In turn, this would translate into more democratic societies where every demographic is better represented. As previous generations get older, young voters have more responsibility in society, so it makes sense to seek ways to improve their participation and satisfaction.
With the increase of younger leaders in power and the modernisation of voting systems to attract the youth, we can expect to see changes in policies to address new voters demands. Democracies around the world continuously face new challenges such as cybersecurity threats, ideological disenchantment, and stagnation. Stronger youth participation in elections -and in politics in general- can help overcome this century’s tribulations and enhance our current and future liberties.