Me, vote? I am so not bothered

August 17, 2007

Turnout won't be boosted by enfranchising16-year-olds, says Richard Rose. Politicians would do better to clean up their image and switch polling to weekends.

Tucked away in Gordon Brown's new Green Paper The Governance of Britain are proposals to increase the engagement of young people in politics. While the goal may be consensual, the results could be counterproductive. Giving 16 year-olds the right to vote would almost certainly reduce rather than increase election turnout as a proportion of those eligible to vote. Moreover, it might not raise Labour's vote as Labour apparatchiks hope.

Falling participation in parliamentary elections is certainly a cause for concern. In the past half-century, turnout has fallen from a high of 78.8 per cent in the "Who governs?" crisis election of February 1974 to a low of 59.4 per cent in 2001 and just over three fifths in 2005. Non-voting has been rising in all age groups, and especially among the young. At the last general election, more than half of 18 to 24-year-olds did not vote, and a significant minority were not even registered to do so.

The Green Paper proposes to appoint a Youth Citizenship Commission to address the perceived threat of political alienation among young people and recommend ways of making them more active in politics. Some of the challenges that the commission will face are specific to the young - for example, they are less interested in politics than their elders. Others, such as media reports of slanging matches between politicians, and revelations of how parties are financed, affect electors of all ages.

Voting is a habit that comes from regular practice. Youthfulness rather than political alienation is the major cause of non-voting among young people. There is nothing particularly British in young people being less likely to vote - across Europe, non-voting is consistently more common among the young than among their parents or grandparents. The habit of voting is gradually acquired as people grow older.

The first obstacle a young person must overcome is getting on the electoral register for the first time. Up to one in five teenagers eligible to vote is not registered. While anyone in a household can put down the names of all who live there, a parent may overlook the fact that a son or daughter will be old enough to vote in the year after the register comes into force, or a young person may be registered at home but away at university when an election is held. Since elections usually take place at the start of the academic year or just before exams, politically savvy students register legally at both their university and home addresses. Voting in only one of these constituencies means then that they are counted as non-voters at their other address.

The majority of teenagers are more involved in youth culture than in the work and family commitments that shape an adult's outlook on government and society. By contrast, in 1918, when all British men were granted the right to vote at 21, most had already been working for up to ten years; while most women aged 30 and above, who were also first granted the right to vote then, had been working and then raising a family for almost two decades.

Current government proposals to make education compulsory until 18 will reduce the time that young voters have to learn from the school of life. Among other things, this teaches that, if everyone's voice is heard, then the 16 to 24 age group is outnumbered more than six to one by those who are older.

Young people interested in politics are likely to be unrepresentative of their age group and even more unrepresentative of the electorate as a whole. The efforts of political parties to organise youth groups have repeatedly been frustrated by an atypical minority. Trotskyite, Communist or hard Left networks have taken over Labour youth groups, while for decades Young Conservative organisations recruited members by organising good dances rather than discussing policy, and student politics featured pranks or worse.

Making 16 and 17-year-olds eligible to vote offers little advantage to any party. The net partisan effect of adding more than a million young people to the electorate is small, because politically they divide five different ways. The largest bloc is non-voters, who are not on the electoral register, not in the habit of voting or just not interested. A disproportionate number are uncommitted floating voters. In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland nationalist parties appeal to the young. Left-inclined young people will split between the Liberal Democrats and Labour; and if the winds of change are blowing against the government of the day, Labour will do worse among young voters. David Cameron appears far more youthful than Gordon Brown.

Since non-voting is not confined to the young, the Green Paper canvasses measures that could make it easier for people to vote whatever their age. It does not take into account, however, the trade-off between such innovations and the integrity of the ballot. Postal votes on demand open the door to fraud and intimidation since an individual does not vote in the privacy of a booth at a polling station. Young voters are especially vulnerable to intimidation. At best, all members of the family may discuss with each other how to vote and then mark their ballot accordingly. At worst, the head of the family could mark the ballots for every other member. Voting at 16 would also raise the prospect of group voting in the classroom or intimidation in the playground.

Internet or mobile-phone voting would create problems of registration and verification. For a young person to vote from a mobile phone by dialling up the ballot box requires electoral officers to verify that the call is made in the name of a person on the electoral register of a given constituency. It thus requires the authorities to issue a unique password that the dialler can use to cast an electronic ballot. Even then, there is only a presumption that the fingers on the keyboard are those of the person on the register.

In recognition of low political interest, the Green Paper calls for more civic education in citizenship and national identity. However, nationalist parties now participating in governments responsible for education in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have a different view of national identity from politicians in Westminster. If "Britishness" is to be more than an alternative label for "English history", this could require English schools to teach the poetry of Robert Burns alongside Shakespeare, and Culloden and the Easter Rising of 1916 as well as the English Civil War. In English cities, the permutations of citizenship and national identity extend to the West Indies, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Africa and beyond. Adding another subject to the long list of things that schools ought to do risks cutting the time given to such core educational goals as teaching literacy, numeracy and communicating clearly with adults in English.

An independent look at research evidence suggests another way to encourage greater turnout among all ages: politicians should change their own behaviour. One reason for disengagement from elections and party politics is that electors of all ages feel that today's politicians are out of touch with ordinary people, untrustworthy or even corrupt. After all, the "feral" media that Tony Blair attacked could not run anti-politics stories without the assistance of politicians who provide the material.

A proven way to boost turnout is to hold elections on Saturdays and Sundays. Weekend voting makes it much easier for employed people and students to vote and is the rule in almost every European country. The Green Paper promises consultation on this issue, but notes that the added cost of paying weekend rates to staff and hiring buildings could invite opposition from the Chancellor of the Exchequer. This is a fine distinction in the world of Prime Minister Gordon Brown. For him, the best way to make sure that today's 16 year-olds cast a ballot for his Government is not to lower the voting age but to remain in office until they are in their twenties.

Richard Rose is director of the Centre for the Study of Public Policy, Aberdeen University. He is currently analysing turnout in Europe in conjunction with colleagues at the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin.

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