1 August 2017: The Inquiry into Civics and Electoral Participation in Victorian State Parliamentary Elections provides a good opportunity to strengthen young people's enfranchisement as voters. At present, young people's enrolment to vote is much lower than the rest of the community. YACVic considers ways to address this, including working with young people to improve citizenship education and strengthen student voice. We also raise the possibility of lowering the voting age to 16.
As the state’s peak body for young people aged 12-25, Youth Affairs Council Victoria (YACVic) welcomes the opportunity to submit to this inquiry. Our vision is that young Victorians have their rights upheld and are valued as active participants in their communities.
Due to time limitations, our submission is brief, but we would be pleased to engage further with the committee on this matter in the future.
Voting in elections is one of the most basic and important ways in which Australians take part in collective decision-making. When the proportion of eligible people enrolled to vote and casting their votes is high, it suggests high levels of community engagement with the decisions that affect everyone. It also helps ensure the decisions made by government take into account the views of the whole community. As young people are a group of Victorians often excluded from community decision-making, we are eager to ensure young people’s full and meaningful participation in the electoral process.
We welcome the fourth item in the inquiry’s Terms of Reference:
“Strategies to increase electoral participation amongst community groups that traditionally experience barriers to electoral participation, such as Victorians aged 18 to 24, Victorians from multicultural backgrounds, as well as Victorians who have recently become Australian citizens and are not familiar with Australia’s electoral system.”
Targeted action to increase the electoral participation of young people would be in line with the Victorian Government’s Youth Engagement Charter, which commits that the Government will:
- Respect the rights of all young people to participate in decisions that affect their lives.
- Value young people as experts in their own experiences, recognising them as equal partners in identifying and implementing solutions.
- Value young people as genuine partners in decision-making processes.
Young people’s electoral enfranchisement remains unacceptably low. Compared to the 95.9% enrolment rate of Victorians in general, we estimate that only 70% of young people in Victoria aged 18-24 are enrolled to vote. While some of them are presumably ineligible (for example, international students), young people’s low voting participation is widely recognised as a concern. The percentage of eligible young Australians enrolled to vote is estimated to be around 80%.
Contrary to popular stereotyping, young people are not “apathetic” or uninterested in the issues affecting their communities. For example, in their 2016 survey of 4,178 young Victorians aged 15-19, Mission Australia found that half the respondents had participated in volunteering over the past year, over 40% had taken part in student leadership activities, and a quarter had taken part in environmental groups or activities. The issues these young Victorians considered most important to Australia as a nation included equity and discrimination, alcohol and other drugs, mental health, and “population issues” – all of which have relevance to a Victorian state election.
A challenge facing us is how to ensure that young people are enfranchised enough to be able to translate their passions, interests and concerns into engagement with the electoral system. We encourage further consultation with young people themselves about what would help here – much of the existing research on the topic is several years old – but we make the following broad recommendations:
- Work closely with students and teachers (including those in flexible and vocational education settings) to strengthen education for Victorian students about elections, voting and Australian politics, in ways that are interesting and relevant to the students. According to a survey of almost 5,000 Australian secondary students via the Youth Electoral Study (2004), students’ interest in the study of government was a key factor associated with a future intention to vote. Similarly, in 2016 YACVic collaborated with the Victorian Government to run regional youth forums in 12 communities, engaging 472 young people. One recommendation made by the participants was that schools provide greater training in “life skills”, including how to engage with elections and vote.
- Note: the Victorian Electoral Commission provides a resource called “Passport to Democracy” for humanities, VCAL and primary students. This resource facilitates students to identify issues they care about, understand which levels of government make decisions about these issues, and develop plans for research and activism, as well as teaching students how to vote and run as an electoral candidate. “Passport to Democracy” is a strong resource encouraging active citizenship, which YACVic welcomes. However, we have not yet seen any information about how many schools have used this resource, and what students’ responses were. Given the numbers of young people who still report not understanding or embracing their role as voters, it would seem there is still space for more schools to use this resource better.
- Strengthen young people’s engagement in decision-making and community change. Young people who feel empowered to advocate and make decisions about things that matter to them are more likely to pursue this role further by voting. Secondary-age young people are more likely to report an intention of voting as adults if they have been involved in meaningful student elections (as voters or candidates), and if they have taken part in political and civic activities, such as volunteering, signing petitions, communicating with politicians and the media, attending public demonstrations, and contributing to charitable organisations. These broader opportunities for engagement, leadership and community contribution expose young people to wider values and ideas which encourage involvement in formal politics. Through this engagement, young people are also encouraged to see themselves as actors making a contribution to a wider “cause”.
- Continue to support active engagement in education communities by all Victorian students, and strong, respectful relationships between all students and their teachers. Students who report a positive attitude towards school and good relationships with their teachers are more likely to report an intention to vote in the future. By ensuring that schools are welcoming, accessible and meaningful for all students, we also help to build a more engaged student polity.
- Develop mechanisms outside of traditional school communities to foster young people’s active citizenship and engagement in political processes. In the past, campaigns of interest have included the 2013 “Rock Enrol” campaign, where the Australian Electoral Commission worked with triple J to promote voting enrolment at live music festivals, and ran media campaigns through triple J radio and website, answering young people’s questions about enrolling and voting. This built on the 2012 “Count Me In” campaign (AEC) which used a Facebook birthday campaign to promote enrolment to young people turning 18. ‘Count Me In’ prompted 37,180 enrolment transactions.
- YACVic encourages such targeted work to build the youth franchise. But we would also encourage wider opportunities for young people to get involved in making positive changes to their communities, provided through mechanisms such as the Victorian Government’s Engage youth grants.
- If there is willingness to make structural changes to how voting operates, consult with young people about what sort of changes might encourage their greater engagement. For example, Dr Aaron Martin (School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne) found that young Australians are more likely than their elders to support having longer periods of time in which to cast a vote, and being able to vote through electronic or online mechanisms.
- Consider widening the franchise to allow voluntary voting by young people aged 16 and 17. This has already occurred in Brazil, Austria and Argentina, and at a local level in Germany and Norway. 16-17 year olds were also able to vote in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. Lowering the (voluntary) franchise would serve to recognise young people's developing maturity and encourage them to see themselves as contributing citizens. It might also help to address a concern about the current voting age: that many young people aged 18 and over are expected to vote for the first time when they have left school and are experiencing all the massive changes of young adulthood, such as leaving home and juggling jobs, study and/or unemployment. Arguably, this state of flux and relative isolation makes it harder for young people to embrace their role as first-time voters. Voting for the first time might be easier if the opportunity was offered at a point when most young people are still at school and living with their families, i.e. in relatively stable environments where there is more likely to be a supportive adult present. Recent research into the effects of lowering the (voluntary) voting age in Austria, Scotland and Norway indicate that first-time voters aged 16-17 turned out in large numbers, and were actually more likely to cast a vote than their 18-25 year old counterparts. However, if the voting age were to be lowered, this should be accompanied by concerted campaigns in schools and the media to encourage youth enrolment and boost the status of citizenship education. Such initiatives have shown success elsewhere – for example, after the “Demokratielnitiative” campaign to strengthen citizenship education in Austrian schools, the number of 16-17 year olds describing themselves as “very interested” in politics doubled.
It is common for first-time voters to put off enrolling until an election has been called. Thus, the lead-up to the 2018 election would seem a perfect time to work on new measures to build youth engagement in the electoral process.
As part of its Youth Policy, the Victorian Government Office for Youth has developed a number of consultative mechanisms with young people. Some of these could play a valuable role in advising on the development of enrolment strategies and other supportive approaches such as peer education. YACVic could also support future engagement with young people on this topic.
Leo Fieldgrass, YACVic Acting CEO
For references please contact Dr. Jessie Mitchell, YACVic Policy Manager.