Not turn­ing out:

Democ­ra­cies are at risk if young peo­ple con­tinue to shun the bal­lot box

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS -

Why the pas­siv­ity of young vot­ers is dan­ger­ous for democ­racy

The life story of Alex Or­lyuk does not seem des­tined to lead to po­lit­i­cal ap­a­thy. Born in the Soviet Union to a fam­ily scarred by the Holo­caust, he moved at the age of six to Tel Aviv, where he fin­ished school and mil­i­tary ser­vice. He fol­lows pol­i­tics and prizes democ­racy. He thinks his gov­ern­ment should do more to make peace with Pales­tini­ans, sep­a­rate re­li­gion and state, and cut in­equal­ity. And yet, now 28 and el­i­gi­ble to vote in the past four gen­eral elec­tions, he has never cast a bal­lot.

His ab­sten­tion, he says, is “a po­lit­i­cal state­ment” on the sorry state of Is­rael’s pol­i­tics. He does not think any of its myr­iad par­ties is likely to bring about the change he wants. Many other young Is­raelis share his dis­af­fec­tion. Just 58% of un­der-35s, and just 41% of un­der-25s, voted in the gen­eral elec­tion of 2013, com­pared with 88% of over-55s. No other rich coun­try has a big­ger gap in turnout be­tween un­der-25s and over-55s (see Faith no more).

Though Is­raeli pol­i­tics is atyp­i­cal—steeped in ques­tions of war, peace, re­li­gious iden­tity and the re­la­tion­ship with Pales­tini­ans—the vot­ing be­hav­iour of its young is nev­er­the­less all of a pat­tern with the rest of the rich world. In Bri­tain and Poland less than half of un­der-25s voted in their coun­try’s most re­cent gen­eral elec­tion. Two-thirds of Swiss mil­len­ni­als stayed at home on elec­tion day in 2015, as did four-fifths of Amer­i­can ones in the con­gres­sional elec­tion in 2014. Al­though turnout has been de­clin­ing across the rich world, it has fallen fastest among the young. Ac­cord­ing to Martin Wat­ten­berg of the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Irvine, the gap in turnout be­tween young and old in many places re­sem­bles the racial gap in the Amer­i­can South in the early 1960s, when state gov­ern­ments rou­tinely sup­pressed the black vote.


De­mo­graphic trends fur­ther weaken the po­lit­i­cal voice of the young. 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.

That raises the wor­ry­ing pos­si­bil­ity that to­day’s record-low youth turnout presages a per­ma­nent shift. 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.

Mil­len­ni­als are not the first young gen­er­a­tion to be ac­cused of shirk­ing their civic duty. And they are more in­ter­ested in ideas and causes than they are given credit for. They are bet­ter ed­u­cated than past gen­er­a­tions, more likely to go on a protest or to be­come veg­e­tar­ian, and less keen on drugs and al­co­hol. But they have lost many of the habits that in­clined their parents to vote.

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-yearolds 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.

The big­gest shift, how­ever, is not in cir­cum­stances but in at­ti­tudes. 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. 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.

And mil­len­ni­als are also the group least likely to be swayed by po­lit­i­cal prom­ises. They are far less likely than the baby-boom gen­er­a­tion (born be­tween 1946 and the mid-1960s) or Gen­er­a­tion X (born in the mid-1960s to late 1970s) to trust oth­ers to tell the truth, says Bobby Duffy of IP­SOS Mori, a poll­ster (see Wasted on the young). They take “au­then­tic­ity” as a sign of virtue and trust­wor­thi­ness, as il­lus­trated by their en­thu­si­asm for, say, Justin Trudeau, Canada’s tele­genic pre­mier. But in the ab­sence of per­son­ally ap­peal­ing lead­ers, mis­trust can shade into cyn­i­cism about democ­racy it­self. Al­most a quar­ter of young Australians re­cently told poll­sters that “it doesn’t mat­ter what kind of gov­ern­ment we have”. A re­port last year found that 72% of Amer­i­cans born be­fore the sec­ond world war thought it “es­sen­tial” to live in a coun­try that was gov­erned demo­crat­i­cally. Less than a third of those born in the 1980s agreed.

The lack of trust ac­com­pa­nies a break­down in com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween politi­cians and the young. 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. Such ef­forts, says Mr. Bruter, can be counter-pro­duc­tive.

Many dis­il­lu­sioned young­sters re­gard re­fus­ing to vote as a way to ex­press dis­sat­is­fac­tion with the choices on of­fer. But ab­sten­tion traps them in

a cy­cle of ne­glect and alien­ation. Politi­cians know that the el­derly are more likely to vote, and tai­lor their poli­cies ac­cord­ingly. Young peo­ple, see­ing a sys­tem that of­fers them lit­tle, are even more likely to tune out, which gives par­ties more rea­son to ig­nore them. Some par­ties dis­re­gard the young com­pletely: in the Nether­lands 50PLUS, which cam­paigns al­most ex­clu­sively on pen­sion­ers’ is­sues, is polling in dou­ble fig­ures.

Even par­ties with­out any such overt fo­cus on old peo­ple in­creas­ingly favour them when set­ting poli­cies. Young work­ers pay taxes to­ward health­care and pen­sion schemes that are un­likely to be equally gen­er­ous by the time they re­tire. Australians aged over 65 pay no tax on in­come un­der A$32,279 ($24,508); younger work­ers start pay­ing tax at A$20,542. In Bri­tain free bus passes, tele­vi­sion li­cences and en­ergy sub­si­dies for pen­sion­ers have sur­vived gov­ern­ment cut­backs; hous­ing as­sis­tance for the young has not. The young across western Europe are more likely to hold a favourable opin­ion of the Euro­pean Union, but it is their elders, who look upon it with greater scep­ti­cism, who hold sway with gov­ern­ments. Bri­tain’s re­cent vote to leave the EU de­pended heav­ily on re­tired peo­ple’s votes; young­sters voted over­whelm­ingly to stay.


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. But Mr. Bruter warns that such a move would ar­ti­fi­cially boost turnout with­out deal­ing with the un­der­ly­ing causes. The pri­or­ity, he says, should be to in­spire a feel­ing among young peo­ple “that the sys­tem lis­tens to you and re­acts to you”, which in turn would strengthen po­lit­i­cal com­mit­ment.

One place to build such a be­lief is in school (see ar­ti­cle). Teenagers who ex­pe­ri­ence democ­racy first- hand dur­ing their stud­ies are more likely to vote af­ter­wards. Stu­dent elec­tions make young peo­ple feel they have the power to shape the in­sti­tu­tions around them, says Jan Ger­men Jan­maat of Univer­sity Col­lege Lon­don. Civic-ed­u­ca­tion cur­ricu­lums which in­volve open dis­cus­sions and de­bates are bet­ter at fos­ter­ing po­lit­i­cal en­gage­ment in later life than classes ded­i­cated to im­part­ing facts about gov­ern­ment in­sti­tu­tions, he says. Yet schools and gov­ern­ments, wary of ac­cu­sa­tions of politi­cis­ing the class­room, may shy away from such pro­grammes.

An­other op­tion would be to al­low peo­ple to vote even younger. In many coun­tries, vot­ing habits are formed dur­ing a par­tic­u­larly un­set­tled pe­riod of young peo­ple’s lives: the few years af­ter leav­ing school. 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.

Yet an­other ap­proach is to re­move ob­sta­cles to vot­ing that are most likely to trip up the young. Amer­ica has many laws ban­ning reg­is­tra­tion in the month be­fore an elec­tion; these dis­pro­por­tion­ately af­fect young peo­ple, who tend to tune in late to cam­paigns, says Kei Kawashima-Gins­berg of CIR­CLE. 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.


As mil­len­ni­als find fewer rea­sons to vote, mo­ti­vat­ing them to do so is be­com­ing dan­ger­ously de­pen­dent on in­di­vid­ual politi­cians and sin­gle is­sues. 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%. Mr. Or­lyuk fondly re­calls Yitzhak Rabin, a for­mer Is­raeli prime min­is­ter who was as­sas­si­nated when Mr. Or­lyuk was seven—for “try­ing to make a change” by mak­ing peace with Pales­tini­ans. “I’m still wait­ing for an­other Rabin to come along. Then I’ll vote,” he says. In the mean­time politi­cians will find his opin­ions and in­ter­ests—and those of other young peo­ple— all too easy to ig­nore.

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