One of democracy’s basic principles is to hold regular, free and fair elections. Elections ensure that the governing remains accountable to the governed. The right to vote is another defining characteristic of democracy. The hard-fought expansion of suffrage in established democracies in the 20th century led to the steady decline of the voting age, thus extending the right to vote to the world’s youth.
Why, then, is our generation increasingly failing to exercise this right?
Global voter turnout is lowest among young voters (18-29 years). Although political engagement is by no means simply about formal, institutionalized processes, as it stands, voting is one of the most—if not the most—immediate way of impacting the quality of democratic governance.
Our generation has transformed political expression – through interest groups, demonstrations, and social media. Our generation has also developed the most social capital – the electoral power of the most diverse and world-connected generation in history. We owe it to ourselves to start countering voter apathy among our peers.
We have the most to gain and the most to lose.
The International IDEA Study, Voter Turnout Since 1945, highlights a number of factors influencing youth electoral participation, including voter distrust, level of education, and access to polls. A number of innovative strategies are being employed globally to draw young people into the electoral process. Here are three ways that could help raise youth electoral participation:
Modernize the electoral process: The limited use of electronic voting in Europe and North America contrasts sharply with trends seen in South America and Asia, where not only is the use of electronic voting more prevalent, but also heavily encouraged. Brazil and India have been using electronic voting machines for over a decade. They have seen benefits in the quality of their elections as a result. Whether it is fingerprint-based biometric voting or voter verified paper audit trails, these countries’ advancements in improving the integrity and security of technological voting systems will be invaluable to those wishing to reap the “youth vote” through the use of digital technologies.
Lower the voting age: 18 is the most common minimum voting age around the world. In some countries, this age goes up as high as 21. Young people pay taxes, serve in the military, and start families. Why are they denied the right to choose their leaders and stand for elections? Rolling back the voting age is one way to encourage and socialize the early politicization of youth as formal participants of a democracy. Evidence from Austria confirms that extending voting rights to 16-year-olds promotes higher turnout.
Make attendance compulsory at the polls: Should electoral participation be considered a citizen’s duty? Belgium, Argentina, and Australia were among the first countries to introduce compulsory voting laws. To date, approximately 38 countries have experimented with compulsory voting, with varying levels of enforcement. Spoiled ballots and uninformed votes have always been part of democratic systems. Yet, the existence of compulsory voting leaves a lasting imprint on political culture and people’s propensity to vote. This is no more evident than in Australia, a model country with upwards of 90% turnout federally—ever since the law was first enforced in 1924.
Democracy is about us, by us and for us. We must do our part to re-engage our peers in the political and democratic process. After all, every election is determined by the people who show up.
What do you think about elections? Tell us in the comments section.