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Ben Graham Jones is Director of Strategy at AEGEE Election Observation
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After the Brexit vote, many analysts noted the generational divide separating remainers and Brexiteers. Even estimations more sympathetic to youth turnout suggest that 64% of registered young people turned out to vote, compared with over 90% of over 65s. Over 70% of those young people who voted mostly backed remaining in the European Union, however, whilst older voters tended towards leaving.
The implication is clear – relatively low youth turnout directly contributed to the vote to withdraw the UK from the European Union.
Low youth turnout, then, is a consequential issue indeed. What’s more, low youth turnout is not confined to the UK alone. According to The Economist ‘in not a single European country do the young turn out more than older people’.
This is an issue of international concern, because a vote is a critical tool through which a sector of society makes power responsive to their concerns. Is it any wonder that young people across Europe so often feel that politics is unresponsive to their concerns when politicians are not as electorally accountable to their generation?
When I left Cambridge, I decided that this was an issue I wanted to address. I had learnt a lot about elections and political processes as a politics student, and here was my chance to apply what I had learnt to a genuinely worthy cause. So, I began my research.
I realised that there are lots of great initiatives across Europe to deal with low youth engagement in electoral processes. Yet all of these initiatives lack one thing – a comparative, data-driven, methodologically rigorous approach to understanding actually why young people turn out in lower numbers.
This is why I joined AEGEE Election Observation. When I joined, AEGEE Election Observation was a youth project which gave young Europeans incredible opportunities to serve on international election observation missions. I realised that it was an incredible vehicle for beginning to understand and act upon this phenomenon.
Together with an outstanding team from universities such as Cambridge, Sciences Po and the Sorbonne, we are transforming ourselves into the international authority on youth engagement in elections.
The first step to understanding youth engagement – including low voter turnout – is to develop a world-leading, academically sound methodology. This is exactly what we are doing right now, and we have deployed fourteen election observation missions in order to tests aspects of this methodology. In the near future, we plan to launch this methodology, which will include comprehensive guidance on how our observers can collect the data we need.
This data will be placed in the public domain along with our analyses and mission-by-mission recommendations in our final reports. This will empower those seeking to engage young people in politics by providing the information that they do not currently have.
Whilst we are at too early a stage to draw conclusions on youth engagement, we can speculate as to what these reasons might look like. Some causes may be local and country-specific, though the pan-European nature of low youth voter turnout suggests that there are likely to be overarching factors too.
Furthermore, let us not make the mistake of equating an election with the process of voting – much of an election occurs long before the act of voting. Young people may be involved in campaigning, fundraising, and officiating, for example, as we will need good data on participation rates in activities such as these in order to formulate a comprehensive assessment.
So, why don’t young people vote? Without the data, it is simply impossible to answer this question. However, unlike others, the organisation I serve on as Director of Strategy is working towards answering this question. By developing a comprehensive methodology, deploying innovative data collection strategies including election observation missions, and gathering world-leading expertise all in one place to analyse our findings, we will go some way to answering that question.
Once that is done, it will become possible to take meaningful action to increase youth turnout. In the meantime, we are always keen to involve new young minds in our election observation missions in order to provide a youth perspective to elections. If you are interested in working out why youth engagement in elections seems to be lower than other age groups, be sure to check out our webpage at http://www.projects.aegee.org/eop/