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How to Make Voting Meaningful for British Youth

Young people in Britain are often criticized for being apathetic about politics. Certainly, their voting record suggests there’s a problem. Just a quarter of 18- to 24-year-olds took part in the last general election, in 2010.

But that’s not because they don’t care passionately about issues like housing, health, or transport. They do. They just don’t relate them to politics.

The trouble is we’re not informing this age group about politics in a way that is meaningful. I can speak from personal experience. As a teacher, at the age of 27, I wasn’t even registered to vote. All through secondary school and university, I never saw the value of being engaged in politics.

David Hughesman, an older teaching colleague of mine, showed me how it affects everyday life—housing, education, the price of the bus, petrol or a pint of milk. In conversations with older students at our school in the Dartford area, we found that very few were interested in politics or registering to vote. David and I felt strongly that we needed to do something about this.

The 2010 general election was approaching. And three weeks before the poll, a group of students and staff decided to set up Bite the Ballot, a politically neutral grassroots organization dedicated to encouraging young people to be part of the decisions that directly affect them.

We’ve found that many young people view politics as boring and outdated. They regard politicians as unrepresentative—mostly white men in suits speaking a language that they don’t understand, and evading questions.

Many don’t know that issues affecting their neighborhood are dealt with by local councils, that they can talk national concerns with their member of parliament, and that they don’t have to make an appointment—just turn up at the MP’s office hours on a Friday.

Young people often say that they’re not going to vote because they don’t know how to. If their parents / guardians are not particularly engaged in politics and have never taken them to a polling station, then they’ll feel uncomfortable or embarrassed about doing so themselves.

It’s crucial that this poor grasp of the way politics works is addressed because politicians are not going to introduce policies for people who don’t vote. Ninety-six percent of those aged 65 and over are registered to vote, but only half of the population of young people eligible to vote are registered. If you’re a politician, who are you going to focus your attention on?

In the UK, older people get free travel passes for public transport, free loft installation, free TV licenses, and all sorts of other benefits. And politicians would never challenge these because they fear being punished at the ballot box.

While a lot of money is spent on ensuring the older generation continues to turn up to vote, there’s little incentive to do the same for young people. As a result, things like university tuition fees have tripled, educational maintenance allowances have been withdrawn, and youth services are being slashed. 

Our hope is that once more youth are registered, politicians out canvassing in the run-up to elections will not just visit community centers and old-age homes, but also schools, youth clubs, and colleges.

We are striving to achieve this with a three-pronged strategy comprising grassroots activism, digital interaction, and policy work.

Our grassroots work centers on engaging with young people around the country. We play experiential learning games, called The Basics, which are about teaching participants how politics works and why it’s important. At the end of these 45-minute sessions, we invite them to register to vote. And most do.

The digital side is concerned with keeping this conversation going. We use social media, particularly YouTube, to communicate key campaign messages around voting and promote discussion about political topics.

We’re introducing digital badges, much like Cub Scout badges, which reward young people for democratic citizenship actions, such as organizing registration drives or running an intergenerational political debate. The badges can be displayed on your social network and used in further education or job applications, as they indicate the skills that have displayed to acquire them.

Our policy work, which involves reaching out to policy makers within political parties, ensures that once people are registered to vote, there are policies for them that make it worth voting.

So far, we have registered 15,000 young people but are expecting this figure to mushroom on February 5, which we’ve designated National Voter Registration Day. We’ll be working with partners across the country—such as teaching unions, secondary schools, and a major supermarket chain—to attempt to register quarter of a million people. 

We are simultaneously preparing for what we hope will be these newly registered voters’ first electoral experience—the European Union parliamentary elections, May 22–25. The main task for us will be to explain what the EU does and how it impacts their lives.

An important feature of our campaign is an art competition called Inspired Impressions, which involves young artists and photographers across Europe submitting work reflecting what it means to be European. The winning entries will be displayed at the EU parliament in Brussels.

The key message is that young people across the region care about similar issues, that policies are made at an EU level, and that you have a say in who represents you in Brussels. 

The momentum of the campaign will be maintained right up to polling day to ensure that as many young people as possible turn out to vote. In this regard, we have learned a lot from our partners and inspiration in America, Rock the Vote—a group that’s enjoyed huge success in registering young people to vote. While we don’t have comparable resources, we aim to replicate a lot of their tactics—including text messages and YouTube videos featuring celebrities and youth idols.

As with all elections, there will be those who choose not to turn out on the day. But our message to young voters is that if you truly believe that there’s no one worth voting for and wish to abstain, go and spoil your ballot by doing something other than voting on it, use it to get your point across. Then, at least, you can’t be described as the apathetic or silent generation—and you'll be sending a strong message to our political leaders that you value democracy but don't truly believe in them.

We want young people to understand that participation in democracy is a journey, that you can’t hope to turn up at the polls and expect everything to change, and that engagement in politics has to be a long-term commitment. To start now means that you might see changes in your lifetime.  

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