Those dumb kids just don’t want to vote

Posted on July 31, 2010 by

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Young people must be morons, right? That’s the impression I get from reading the newspapers lately. When they’re not letting down the nation with their lack of work ethic and their hyperactive attention spans, they’re stuffing up our electoral system by being too lazy to enrol to vote.

Last week, the Australian Electoral Commission pointed out an alarming decline in voter registration, which it described “a most serious threat to Australia’s democratic model”. The Age picked up the story, interviewing Aaron Martin, a lecturer at the Australian National University’s School of Politics and International Studies. His explanation, as characterised in the article, was simple: young people are to blame.

[Mr Martin] said the reason was largely demographic – young people aren’t interested in federal elections.

“Young people are not as interested in electoral politics, and this a trend found in other countries among young people,” Mr Martin told The Age.

Now, this is a news report, so there’s every chance that Martin’s real argument was more complex than that. Many academics have seen their nuanced, in-depth explanation of a complicated issue hammered out into a simple, newsworthy headline by a journalist with a deadline and a word limit. But the idea that young people are vapid and disengaged from politics is the one The Age is happy to run with, and I think it’s a common one among people who don’t bother to talk to many young people about real political issues that are relevant to them.

Relevancy is a key point. Of course if you interview an 18 year old about Gillard’s alleged opposition to parental leave or the pension they’re less likely to have an opinion, for the same reason senior citizens are less likely to care that we still don’t have an adult classification for videogames in this country: it’s not relevant to them. Most teenagers aren’t raising kids and most pensioners aren’t playing Left 4 Dead.

Even if it’s true that young people are more commonly uninterested in politics (yourselves excluded, dear readers), that doesn’t work as an explanation of why voter enrolment levels have declined. Australia had the same proportion of young people it at the last election, and the one before that, and the one before that. So what’s changed? What’s different this year?

Further, Mr Martin said issues like population growth, mining taxes and border protection simply may not excite young people.

Breaking news! The election described by everyone in the country, including some of the people running in it, as the most boring event in politics since Simon Crean was Labor leader is not exciting to young people. Right, like it’s igniting the imaginations of everyone else. Lay off! Even The Chaser team is struggling to make this election seem interesting.

Okay, yes, the pronounced dullness of the current campaign probably hasn’t helped motivate young Australians to take an interest. But there’s a history to this problem, and it’s being overlooked in the rush to paint young people as gormless nose-pickers who couldn’t care less.

Until 2006, the law declared that new voters must have a minimum of seven days to register to vote once an election had been called. This was already a hard rule in comparison to comparable countries, some of which allow enrolment up to the day before or even the day of an election (such as New Zealand and Canada, respectively). However, it was too lenient for the Howard Government, which in its period of dominance over both houses of federal parliament passed an amendment to the law that cut the minimum grace period to a single working day. Howard said the change was motivated by concerns about electoral fraud, even though the AEC had always maintained that a) last-minute enrolments were not a particular source of fraud, and b) there was minimal electoral fraud in Australia anyway. In a submission to parliament on the issue in 2000, the AEC said that “early close of the rolls will not improve the accuracy of the rolls for an election. In fact, the expectation is that the rolls for the election will be less accurate, because less time will be available for existing electors to correct their enrolments and for new enrolments to be received.”

(If you think one working day is enough time to enrol to vote, read Joel Tozer’s account from last week of the many hurdles he faced along with many other people in trying to update their electoral details at the last minute. He describes a bureaucracy overwhelmed by the crush and a website broken down by the enormous influx of potential voters wanting to make sure their vote would count.)

The obvious interpretation of Howard’s restrictive new enrolment laws, pointed out by many commentators at the time, was that the Coalition was trying to shut out young voters – a demographic with which the conservative parties are typically unpopular.

There was a push back that year. In the months before the 2007 federal election, the AEC and the progressive activist organisation GetUp both launched vigorous media campaigns to encourage young people to enrol to vote. They appeared to work, as 100,000 more Australians aged 18-29 ended up being eligible to vote in the 2007 election than the 2004 election. However, within the shortened grace period itself, only 77,000 new voters enrolled, down from 156,000 in the longer grace period before the 2004 election.

While still in opposition, Labor pledged to restore the seven-day grace period if it was elected. Once in power, the Rudd government made one feeble attempt to do so, but dropped the issue after the amendment was blocked by the Coalition and Family First in the senate.

As a result, the restrictive laws remain in place, long after the media attention has petered out. Triple J and the AEC ran a few ads this year to encourage people to enrol to vote, but they didn’t have the same impact without the sense of threat that was felt in 2007.

This year, 90,000 new voters enrolled in the single day allowed the election was declared – a slight increase compared to the last election, although still way down on 2004. However, with the reduced level of media attention, the total number of new voter enrolments was almost halved, from 623,843 between 2004 and 2007 to only 385,455 since then. And because nobody seems to have joined the dots, it’s the young people who are copping the blame this time, instead of the government that institutionalised their disenfranchisement in the first place.

Which shows three things: one, young Australians are willing to take action when they’re talked to directly about issues that relate to them, like the restriction of their right to vote in 2007. Two, many people are quick to judge young people for any social problem without really understanding the underlying issues. And three, when the voters’ attention is elsewhere, the political machines get away with bloody murder.

Words – Fraser Allison

Image – kmakice

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