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Studies have shown that young people do not consider politicians and political parties to be representative of issues that impact them. AAP/Lukas Coch

Many young people aren’t enrolled to vote – but are we asking them the wrong question?

As soon as the 2016 federal election was called, the race was on to find those who are dragging their heels to the ballot box. While nearly one million eligible Australians are not enrolled to vote, it is inevitably young people who end up the focus of the news headlines. Around half, or 130,000, of Australia’s 18-year-olds are not on the electoral roll.

If previous elections are anything to go by, we’ll hear a rehash of concerns about young people’s low enrolment, their supposed disengagement from politics and even democracy, and the usual stereotyping of them as apathetic and/or entitled. But our research suggests something more nuanced is going on.

The standard view

Lack of enrolment or low enrolment is a genuine issue. In the lead-up to the 2013 federal election, around 400,000 of those aged 18-24 had not yet enrolled and therefore couldn’t vote even if they wanted to.

But 18- and 19-year-olds are not generally encouraged to enrol except close to an election. It is therefore unsurprising that many who turned 18 or 19 in the past two or three years would not be enrolled.

They are also a highly mobile group, regularly changing residence, transitioning from school to work, university and other study, while juggling multiple responsibilities including work, study, family commitments and other interests – all real challenges to electoral registration with up-to-date details.

But something deeper is also going on.

One study of Year 12 students and non-students across Australia found most young people enrol to vote because they consider it the right thing to do, but only half reported they would vote if voting was not compulsory. They expressed a lack of confidence in their understanding of political issues and parties to make a decision about voting. Many viewed political leaders as dishonest and untrustworthy.

Trust is a major issue. A 2013 survey found young Australians named trust and integrity as the most important factors shaping their vote in the election.

Another survey published in 2014 identified feelings of powerlessness about the democratic process – and this was not just confined to young people.

Previous studies found young people see “career politicians” as distant. Some young people struggle to differentiate political parties from their members.

Perhaps this is why party identification among many young people is low, or why one-quarter of 18- to 29-year-olds say:

It doesn’t matter what kind of government we have.

But this doesn’t mean young people are apathetic. Rather, they do not consider politicians and political parties to be representative of issues that impact them.

We’re asking the wrong question

Rather than asking why young people are not enrolling to vote, we should be asking what young people do care about and what forms of participation they engage in, and use this to inform changes in political cultures and institutions.

Young people are often more interested in direct, everyday, individualised and networked forms of participation. Their everyday participatory practices (such as boycotts and sharing political content via social media), interest-based activities (such as contributing to youth mental health service design or starting their own online petition or campaign), and creative and media practices (joining a flashmob, producing a mash-up or a Tumblr account) are often framed as “taking action” on issues they care about.

Surveys or electoral rolls rarely pick up these forms of participation. But what they tell us is that taking part in elections is only one form of participation young people value.

Concern about youth electoral enrolment is framed the wrong way. It usually suggests that young people are somehow deficient and that they – and not the political culture and electoral systems – are the problem.

Young people do respond if the issues that parties and candidates campaign on speak to the issues that matter to them. Just as they are also likely to feel alienated by policy platforms and campaigns that ignore, patronise or propose policies that erode their opportunities, they feel motivated and mobilise in response to issues that reflect their vision of society.

Young people respond if the issues that parties and candidates campaign on speak to the issues that matter to them. AAP/Richard Ashen

Back to the fundamentals

We can usefully reframe the “problem” from “engaging young people” to “engaging with young people”.

Aside from rejecting crude and negative generalisations about young people, there are very practical steps that can be taken.

Opportunities for young people to participate in community and government decision-making can be increased. Studies of civics and citizenship education show mixed results. But, there is evidence that experiencing democratic cultures and processes in school, home and the community contributes to an understanding and interest in participating in democratic life.

Young people can be engaged with directly on the issues they care about. Research shows young people value authentic, project-based, direct participation around key issues or interests. When political candidates and parties respectfully engage with young people as valued members of the electorate, they will likely feel more committed and enthusiastic about elections.

So, while efforts to increase enrolment – such as campaigns, automatic enrolment and keeping the roll open until closer to the election date – may be helpful, they do not get to the core of the issue.

For candidates, there are very good reasons to court young people in an election. It has been rightly observed that, making up 30% of the electorate, young people have the potential to make or break a federal election campaign.

Research on their intention to vote shows the youth vote has significantly shaped the electoral landscape of past elections. With reports of high youth engagement with Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, the same could be possible in Australia.

If there was ever an election in which young people could use their vote to express the kind of society they want to live in, it is this one. Higher education reform, high debt, mental distress, low employment and a hostile housing market are just some of the issues around which the youth vote could coalesce. As argued by Australian Youth Affairs Coalition chair Katie Acheson, they are an untapped resource.

As with the rest of Australia’s voters, the fundamentals lie, in significant part, in the degree to which political candidates hear and respond to the concerns of young Australians. Because, when young people do take their concerns to the ballot box – as well as into their communities and online – they can and do make a significant difference.

Further reading: Lecturers: encourage your students to enrol and vote in the election

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