It’s Spinoff Youth Voting Week, where old people aren’t allowed to vote*. To celebrate, Tamsyn Matchett has written on a civics education programme giving teenagers a first sweet taste of local democracy before they’re legally permitted to vote for real.
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This year, approximately 12% of our eligible voting population is aged between 18 – 24 and could be participating in their first local government election, according to data from the Electoral Commission. Whether young people turn up to cast their vote or not will remain a focus for many concerned with the state of our democracy.
Young people’s lack of engagement with voting is an ongoing worry. In 2016, those aged 18 – 24 had a turnout nearly half that of our national average for local elections. In comparison, those over 65 were twice as likely to vote – a significant imbalance between two major demographics. New Zealand is not alone, with youth participation in elections declining globally. A 2016 study Portland University found residents 65 years and older were seven times more likely to vote than residents between 18 – 24.
In contrast to these trends, young people continue to demonstrate they care about issues at every level: global, national and local. We know they are more likely to be conscious consumers; more likely to protest on issues of significance; more likely to engage in civil action, both online and in person. Ensuring they see a valuable connection between that strong political awareness and participation at the ballot box is critical if we want to address the global decline. Providing effective civics support to our schools can play a key role in facilitating this – we know that early engagement with political processes is habit-forming.
Ngā Pōti ā-Taiohi – Youth Voting is a civics education programme run by Local Government New Zealand. The programme is taught in schools to coincide with the local elections. At Auckland Council, we run our own version due to our organisation’s size and unique set-up. This year, we worked with teachers to make our curriculum more accessible and engaging for students. Lessons are provided in English and te reo Māori and include co-governance and council’s relationship with Māori; protests, submissions and how to have your say (with a focus on climate change); and an opportunity to participate in an online referendum and mock election for actual candidates. Several participating schools also hosted candidate evenings, giving students the chance to quiz candidates.
Given the students can’t legally enroll to vote, the mock election doesn’t count toward the general election results. But that doesn’t minimise the significance of the experience for young people. By providing a practical voting experience, we have a better shot at impacting their civic participation long-term.
Creating a space to form positive behaviours at a young age raises awareness about the function of elections and voting. Students can test out what the process looks like – how much information they need to feel adequately informed to vote. They can scrutinise what politicians say and whether they reflect on issues young people care about, and focus on what local politicians actually do.
Civics education, specifically a programme that coincides with local elections, can also give students an opportunity to discuss diversity in representation. Within student-led discussion, I have seen rangitahi consider standing as a candidate as a result of conversations with their peers on the diversity of candidates. When young people have access to relevant information, taught to them in schools or similar institutions, they are empowered to participate and make informed decisions.
As we continue to grapple with declining voter turnout, it’s vital that councils around the country provide an equitable platform to all members of society to stand and vote. Young people, especially our Māori and Pasifika, need to be given more opportunity to speak their truth; to have access to decision-making and a role in shaping the future for their communities. Civics education is just one component of many approaches we should be considering when looking to increase the engagement of our young people during elections.
Ngā Pōti ā-Taiohi – Youth Voting online elections are currently taking place in 73 schools (13,000 students) across Tāmaki Makaurau.
Tamsyn Matchett is currently working for Auckland Council as their Youth Voting Project Lead.
*Legal disclaimer: this is not true.