Young voters — disinterested or under educated?

By: Blogger

I threatened a couple of weeks ago to rant about public apathy towards local government and even politics in general. I was intending to spare you that — at least until closer to the election — but recent coverage around the so-called "disenfranchised" youth got me going.

It all stemmed from the Green Party's naming of new candidates 23-year-old Jack McDonald and 22-year-old Chloe Swarbrick in the top 15 of their party list — placings likely to see them enter parliament based on current polling. 

By all accounts both of these young people are very astute and politically aware, making them good choices, but every major news network, somewhat predictably, tied the announcement to the fact that most people their age couldn't really give a toss about elections. On the back of that we were fed the same old rhetoric justifying the disinterest — it's not worth it, there's no point, nobody listens to what we can to say anyway, politicians are all liars, blah, blah, blah.

See, I don't buy that for one second. Firstly, disenfranchised (meaning to be deprived) is the wrong word. Disengaged (emotionally detached) is closer. But I have another description: under educated.

Forget whether they care or not, it never ceases to amaze me how little young people seem to actually know or understand about politics in this country.

And I'm not even talking about the process.

Ask any 16 to 25-year-old some basic questions and you'll likely be stunned at the blank stares you get in return. Try: Who is the Mayor/Deputy Mayor of Southland? 
Who is your local MP? What is the name of your electorate? If you're really brave you could ask them to explain how Mixed Member Proportional Representation works or what wards/constituencies make up their local councils.

The fact that so few people can correctly answer such questions is an real indictment on our education system. Surely understanding our systems of governance, both local and national, should be as important as reading, writing and maths. The Electoral Commission has developed resources to encourage students' understanding and enthusiasm for participating in their communities and the voting process, but I have to wonder how much of it is being used, or how well. 

For that matter, do the teachers delivering the programme understand it themselves?
As we edge closer to Anzac Day, I cringe to think what many of those who fought to protect our democracy would think now of the indifference shown towards it. Can you imagine a young person today willing to give their life defending the right for New Zealanders to choose their own leaders?

While it is not compulsory to vote in this country, it is compulsory for those of voting age to be registered on the electoral roll. Yet, at March 31, only 76.93% of the estimated eligible population of 18-24-year olds in the Clutha-Southland electorate and 83.38% in the Invercargill electorate were enrolled.

In Clutha-Southland (which, ironically, is represented by the country's youngest MP) the figures get worse before they get better — just 64.07% of 25-29-year-olds registered to vote and just 67.45% of 30-34-year-olds.

Last month Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft suggested New Zealand should consider changing the voting age to 16, saying it could help with voter engagement and pointing out that 16-year-olds can drive, get a job and get married, yet can't go to the polls.

It's an interesting proposition. 

While 18 is the legal age for voting in most countries, there are some exceptions, such as, Austria, Scotland, Brazil, Argentina and Ecuador where 16-year-olds are allowed to vote. And there is some research about that shows voting younger encourages a lifetime of participation. 

I look forward to seeing some more debate around this.

But, first, I'd welcome some more robust civics tuition in our schools.

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