Not turning out:
Democracies are at risk if young people continue to shun the ballot box
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.
MILLENNIALS DO NOT SEE VOTING AS A DUTY. 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
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.
LESSONS FOR LIFE
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
AS MILLENNIALS FIND FEWER REASONS TO VOTE, MOTIVATING THEM TO DO SO IS BECOMING DANGEROUSLY DEPENDENT ON INDIVIDUAL POLITICIANS AND SINGLE ISSUES
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.
WAITING FOR A HERO
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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