Sunday 22 April 2018

Young voters give wake-up call ahead of next election

Mobilisation of younger voters may be significant factor in the looming General Election, writes Adrian Kavanagh

PEOPLE POWER: Lena Burke, who cast her vote for the first time, at the polling station in St James Primary School, Basin Street Upper
PEOPLE POWER: Lena Burke, who cast her vote for the first time, at the polling station in St James Primary School, Basin Street Upper

Adrian Kavanagh

One of the most positive aspects associated with this election has been the degree to which it has mobilised young voters.

Traditionally turnout levels for younger Irish people are low - and indeed Ireland has one of the lowest turnout levels in Europe for those in the 18-30 age cohort.

There are a number of reasons for this. Many of these may be down to the fact that younger people - because they tend to be more mobile than older age groups - find it more difficult to vote. They are often away from home at work or in university (often in the middle of exams) at the time of elections and indeed many are out of the country and unable to vote because Ireland is one of a smaller number of countries that does not extend voting rights to its diaspora.

Many younger people have not been registered to vote at the time of elections. Younger people also may feel alienated from the political system and find it hard to relate to politics, given the large number of older (and mainly male) Irish politicians.

In turn, there is a sense that the political system can afford to ignore, or downplay, the issues of younger voters because of these low turnout levels. The example I often use with my political geography classes on voter turnout is the radically different government responses to the protests by students and the higher turnout cohort of old age pensioners following the 2008 Budget.

The degree to which the younger vote has been mobilised - in most cases, by younger people themselves - for the Marriage Equality Referendum has been very impressive.

As a lecturer in Maynooth University, I have been particularly struck by the efforts made by the student union and other groups to get students registered to vote in this election, but also the individual efforts made by students - who are currently in the middle of exams - to vote at this election. These efforts, of course, have been particularly evident in the #HomeToVote campaign, which has seen many young Irish people return to the country to vote. Lazy assumptions that younger people are apathetic have been strongly challenged by what has been seen over the past few days and weeks.

Will this historic mobilisation of younger voters have an impact beyond this weekend's contest and possibly have a notable bearing on the general election? On the one hand, research has shown that voting is a habitual act; the act of voting for the first time means that a person is more likely to turn out to vote in future contests. On the other hand, different types of electoral contests do attract different groups of voters to vote - for instance, referendum contests often see the highest turnouts in middle class urban areas, while rural areas have the higher turnouts for local and general elections. There may, indeed, be many amongst the cohort of younger people mobilised by the referendum contest - especially those currently based in Britain or indeed further afield - who will not vote in the upcoming general election, in many cases because the effort to do so is just too demanding. And that is a pity. And it does point to a need to focus political reform efforts elsewhere, instead of having referendum contests on the age of presidential election candidates. If this weekend's mobilisation of younger voters does result in a larger turnout of younger people at the next election, then the result of Carlow-Kilkenny by-election may offer some hints as to what the political impact of this might be.

Whatever the case, one of the big messages of this weekend is that the political system in Ireland will need to make a much greater effort to engage with younger voters.

Sunday Independent

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