A panel discussing low levels of turnout among young voters has argued more fundamental changes to New Zealand’s democratic system are needed to reverse the trend. Sam Sachdeva reports.

It’s the age-old question that most politicians would give anything to answer: how can we get more young people to vote?

The panellists at Victoria University’s Kelburn campus discussing the issue as part of Democracy Week were united in their concern about current levels of youth participation in New Zealand.

It was a worry made manifest by the smattering of empty seats, with one panellist trying (unsuccessfully) to “bribe” students with $10 to sit in the front row.

Children’s Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft described the issue as “something of a crisis for democracy”, pointing to the fact that at the last election, four in every 10 young Kiwis did not vote – the highest percentage of any age group.

“The age group who are most invested in the future, who theoretically are most concerned about the long term prospects for our country, the age group that has the most to gain by being involved, are the least involved.”

“I think the question is what is wrong with the system that means young people don’t want to engage in the first place?”

Josiah Tualamali’i, chairman of the Pacific Youth Leadership and Transformation (PYLAT) Council, argued the issue was not simply about youth participation, but a systematic problem with including the voices of young people in politics and democracy.

Tualamali’i said surveys of young Kiwis showed their main obstacles to voting were the difficulty of processing the information they were “bombarded” with, as well as the lack of civics education and opportunities to practice democracy from a young age.

“If you can’t let high school students elect their prefects, how can you possibly expect young people to then go into the system and vote? It makes no sense to me.”

Laura O’Connell Rapira, the co-founder of youth engagement non-profit RockEnrol, said any problems with youth engagement could not be “compartmentalised” away from the broader issues affecting New Zealand, such as expensive housing, lower wages and higher debts because of student loans.

“A 16-year-old girl said to me the other week, ‘The issue is not should we have one vote – we should have two, I’m twice as invested in the future as you grey-haired old guys who will be gone in 20 years’.”

“These are people that are being marginalised by society and the economy, it makes sense they’re also being marginalised by democracy…

“I think the question is what is wrong with the system that means young people don’t want to engage in the first place?”

There was relative agreement on what those issues were facing young people – climate change, expensive housing, student debt, youth suicide rates – although O’Connell Rapira warned against taking a blanket approach to the concerns facing youth.

“If you’re an 18-year-old Māori man living in Northland on a farm, your needs are quite different to a 25-year-old upper middle class Pākehā university graduate looking to buy their first home.”

udge Andrew Becroft, Josiah Tualamali’i and Laura O’Connell Rapira speak at Victoria University. Photo: Supplied

Lower the voting age?

One potential solution to youth disengagement floated by some has been allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in elections, as happens in countries like Scotland, Austria and Brazil.

Becroft said he supported a “serious national discussion” about the idea, and believed there was a genuine desire amongst young people to have their say.

“A 16-year-old girl said to me the other week, ‘The issue is not should we have one vote – we should have two, I’m twice as invested in the future as you grey-haired old guys who will be gone in 20 years’.”

Most of arguments against letting those aged 16 and 17 vote could also apply to those over 18, he said.

“People develop at different stages and ages: there are plenty of 21- and 22-year-olds whose frontal lobes need a lot of work, and they are prone to making impulsive decisions. But with good robust civic education that started early, there should be time for considered decisions.”

O’Connell Rapira supported a change, saying the best reason to back it was that it would increase the strength of the youth voter bloc, compared with other groups like the over-65s.

“If we lower the voting age to include 16- and 17-year-olds, that’s two years more of humans than we can have in solidarity with young people’s interests.”

However, any change would need to be partnered with civics education in schools that taught children how to build “a wave of people power” outside Parliament.

The issue sparked some disagreement amongst high school students on the panel – those who could be affected by a change to the voting age.

Josiah Greig, a Year 13 student at Wellington College, said he did not support a lowering of the voting age as he believed most young people didn’t know enough to make an educated vote.

Aina Simpson, a Year 12 student at Wellington Girls’ College, believed that could be overcome with proper civics education.

“If we were offered the education in schools in earlier years, and offered more about politics and voting, then we would be able to make an educated decision on who we vote for.”

Practical solutions

With Prime Minister Bill English shooting down any change in the near future, youth advocates are taking matters into their own hands.

Tualamali’i said PYLAT avoided big campaigns on social media, instead focussing on “deep engagement” on major issues.

“Anyone can see a ‘vote for me’ thing, but we try to hold discussions where young people can grapple with the issues, get an idea of what the different sides are.”

At the organisation’s iSPEAK events, politicians would debate an issue in front of young people, who would then discuss the topic and send their views to a “decision-maker” like a government minister.

Rapira O’Connell said RockEnrol had a “pledge, party, polls” policy at the 2014 election – encouraging people to make a pledge to vote in exchange for a free ticket to a party, with a follow-up call or email shortly before polling day asking them to explain how they planned to vote.

For the 2017 election, RockEnrol was doing a roadshow through the main student centres and key rural towns, with comedians, musicians and cultural ambassadors discussing political issues at bars and cafes.

The group was also training group of about 20 young people to become political commentators, providing a database for journalists who wanted a young voice, while also working with NGOs and issues experts to analyse parties’ policy platforms and how they would affect young people.

Unleashing the youth vote

So what could happen if young voters turned out in their droves?

Becroft said the youth vote was “a big bloc”, with nearly 600,000 Kiwis aged between 18 and 29.

“If those numbers that I talked about were pulled together and the issues that we’ve all raised were taken seriously, and on my part particularly the issues of child income-related poverty, material disadvantage…that issue alone could reach headline levels…

“It would be an extraordinary, powerful voting bloc and I don’t think anything like its power has been unleashed.”

O’Connell Rapira was hopeful a rise in youth turnout would “plant seeds in the hearts and minds of young people”, encouraging them to continue their political activism after September 23.

“Democracy isn’t just about that vote we place once every three years, it’s about holding our government – whichever colours make it up – to account for the issues that we care about.”

  • Victoria University is a foundation supporter and sponsor of Newsroom.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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