Laura O’Connell Rapira has a pretty simple philosophy. “Everyone should have a nice life,” she tells a small audience at a Wellington bar. “Small actions, multiplied, can lead to big change,” she says.
Laura, 25, outlines her pitch for RockEnrol, a movement to increase youth voter turnout. The audience is a mix of smartphones and activists wearing knitted jumpers; committed environmentalists and social media addicts. Laura talks about crowd-funding the campaign, getting musicians and artists on board, and convincing people that government is cool. “I grew up in the age of Paris Hilton and the Kardashians,” she says, and government just isn’t glam.
She describes RockEnrol as a “crowd-fuelled youth-led movement to try and build and activate political power for young people in Aotearoa”.
“We use the cultural mediums that young people are already engaged in to try to make politics more relevant and resonant – so that’s popular culture, music, events, art, things like that.” The idea is to hold events – gigs, house parties, festivals, a carnival – for which the price of admission is a promise to vote in September’s election. They’ll also be running marketing and education campaigns.
These measures are necessary because fewer than half of 18-29 year olds voted in the last election. Turnout has been declining in much of the world for decades. New Zealand’s numbers sit in about the middle of the OECD, so there’s no crisis yet. We’re one of the easiest countries in the world to enrol to vote and cast your ballot. And yet, people are worried about what the decline means for our democracy.
Laura says this is because young people aren't invited to be part of the political process and haven't been educated about how it works.
There was little civics education when she was at school, so she thinks what happens in the capital is a foreign concept for many people her age. “It’s hard to make the correlation between how your life is directly impacted by what goes on in Parliament in Wellington.”
Political parties and candidates don’t make the effort to connect with young people “and why would you want to engage with someone who doesn’t want to engage with you?”
Wellington activist Richard Bartlett, 29, is unsure if he’s going to vote this year, but thinks he probably won’t. Citizenship and participation are day-to-day practices, not every something that's done every election cycle, he says.
“In the ideal system, voting would be the gateway drug to democracy,” he says. “In the current system, it’s like the panacea, like ‘yeah, you’ve had your democracy, you’ve had just enough’. It’s the bare minimum of democracy we can give people so that they shut up for another three years and we can get back to work.”
When The Wireless and Colmar Brunton* surveyed 16- to 30-year-olds around the country last year, 82 per cent said they were planning to vote in this year’s election. Fifteen per cent said no, and 3 per cent said they didn’t yet know. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that number increased the older respondents got. Those aged between 25 and 30, of European ethnicity, working full-time and/or stay-at-home parents all had stronger intent to vote. Sixteen- to 18-year-olds and people of Asian ethnicity were much less likely.
That tallies with what academics know about overall voter turnout. People who are older, more educated, more affluent and living in urban areas are more likely to vote; Maori and Pasifika, migrant communities, younger, poorer, and less educated people less so.
Because of that, Jennifer Curtin, a political scientist at the University of Auckland, says it’s impossible to talk about the “youth vote”. Young people have always been less likely to turn out, but the decline in turnout has been much steeper for younger people than older people. She says it’s a cycle of “mutual neglect”; young people don’t vote, because parties don’t appeal to them, and parties don’t appeal because young people don’t vote.
Victoria University’s Professor Jack Vowles told a conference hosted by the Electoral Commission that young people are considerably less likely to vote than young people 20 years ago. In fact, he says, of those eligible to vote in the 2011 election between the ages of 18 and 29, just over 40 per cent did – down from about 60 per cent in 1996. And it compares to just over 70 per cent of people over 30.
Laura Rapira O’Connell’s RockEnrol is similar to Rock The Vote, an organisation credited with turning the trend around in the United States by creating a “culture of cool” around voting. Non-partisan, using music, TV and events, and the manpower of 150,000 volunteers, the organisation registered more than five million young people to vote in the 21 years it’s been active.
Rock The Vote president Heather Smith says that voting is a habit – if people don’t vote early in life, they won’t vote later. She says there’s a lot of different reasons people might not go to the polls and it’s not just what is often condescendingly referred to as apathy. “They’re new to the process. It’s the first time you’re doing something, it’s the first time your peer group is doing something, figuring out where to go and when to go and what to bring, and making a decision. You actually take that seriously.”
Another barrier is people feeling like voting doesn’t matter or won’t change anything. “The political conversation and debate that’s going on is often not about young people and their concerns. It’s about their parents and grandparents – who they love dearly, but it doesn’t make it feel like it’s about them.”
And if you want someone to show up, you have to ask, she says. “If the political parties and non-profits, and the media… actually went out and said ‘this matters, please go vote’, and helped them understand the power they have as voters… I think we’d see a lot more people showing up on Election Day.”
Part-time stay-at-home father Brett Johansen, 29, is unsure if he’s going to cast a vote this year. He has voted in every general election he’s been eligible to – “though at the last election, while standing in the voting booth, I gave very serious consideration to just tearing the paper in half and leaving it at that”.
Not voting seemed a viable way to express his opinion, though he did end up picking a party. “This time around I am more than willing to consider not voting for any of them as much of an option as ticking one of the wee circles.”
Contrary to the perception of the disengaged or apathetic young non-voter, Brett says he’s very engaged with politics. He's vocal about policies and issues he agrees and disagrees with. “Everything is political; elections and parliament are just the way our society has chosen to exercise power.”
But casting a vote isn’t the only way to express that power, he says. “Surely one of the fundamentals of democracy is that people are able to engage in the way that they believe is right? I think we’re very biased towards the idea that if a political opinion that can't be plotted on a graph or put in a box where we know what it means, it is somehow invalid.”
Laura O’Connell Rapira agrees. “Voting is just one part of being an active citizen and being able to shape the way the country is going to move forward.”
She says youth-led groups like Generation Zero, Just Speak, and Rising Voices exist because people want to feel like they are part of something and that their voice matters. “But ticking a box every three years and just being ignored thereafter is not quite enough.”
After the election no matter who gets in, people can make sure that politicians are listening to the things that young people care about, she says.
Auckland digital business strategist Ryan Sproull, 34, thinks there are ways other than voting to be a good citizen, including volunteering and pro bono work for community organisations. He concedes, having only recent returned to New Zealand that he’s not doing enough yet, but says he thinks it’s better to do other things than vote.
He objects to some of the assumptions that underlie the electoral system. “So in a way you could say that I refuse to play the game because I think it's rigged. I feel like to vote is to say, ‘Okay, I agree to the rules of this game, and here's who I hope will win, so I'm playing this way.’”
He’d rather work on ways that voluntary organisation and modern technology can provide alternatives to the current system. “Partly because it seems like the more people engage with that system, the less likely they are to be able to conceive of alternatives.”
Online voting is one of the things often lauded as a way to get more young people involved. The Government is looking at it for local government elections, but it looks to be some time away for general elections. But Richard Bartlett – who works on the collaborative decision making software Loomio - says the parliamentary system, which only gives him the option of a finite number of parties is the problem. “I want to be able to go somewhere and vote on every single issue every single day if I want to. And if I don’t want to, I want to be able to delegate my influence to people that I trust. And then as soon as they lose my trust, I want to retract that delegation.”
Richard says the whole parliamentary system is so oppositional, it’s not set up to make good decisions. “When you vote for something, suddenly you’re attaching a piece of your identity to it, and you put your identity up against someone else’s identity. Once someone knows that I am a Green voter or a National voter, it’s increasingly difficult for me to talk to people that are on the other team.”
Voting doesn’t change public opinion; education and organisation and agitation do, he says.
“We hear that a lot, and I think the answer to me is really simple,” says Heather Smith. “It’s that you don’t fix the problem by opting out,” she says.
“You don’t say ‘oh gosh, those people in power, they’re idiots, right? They’re doing things that I don’t agree with, or they’re not doing anything at all, therefore, I am going to give them more power and opt out of this entire process.’
Erin Jackson, 25, is a former student politician, activist, part of the Christchurch Student Volunteer Army, and ran in last year’s local government elections. She’s a “wannabe good citizen”. She has been involved in causes and campaign for a decade – ways of being involved socially and politically that aren’t about voting in a general election.
“The Student Volunteer Army was lauded as this model of citizenship and engagement and young people getting involved, but a lot of us that were involved go ‘well hold on, we were actually doing a lot of that stuff beforehand”.
Erin Jackson thinks it’s about more than just what happens in the immediate party or government makeups. “It’s what happens when we actually comes down to the issues that we care about.” Good people put bad people in office by not voting, she says, using a phrase that's often used to encourage people to vote.
Laura Rapira O’Connell wants RockEnrol to remind people that ticking a box isn’t that hard, and that a lot of people doing that can bring about real change. The aim is to increase youth voter turnout by 13 per cent – or about 130,000 people.
“In an election that I feel is going to be really close, I feel like young people are going to have the opportunity to shape the election towards young people, and that’s really powerful,” she says. That change might not change the make-up of Parliament, or who forms the Government, but it could very well change what they talk about when they get there.
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* Colmar Brunton Youth Online survey for Radio New Zealand. Telephone survey (landline and mobile) among a total of 900 people aged 16-30 years, nationwide, in August 2013.
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