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The Young & Informed: Why don’t young voters show up at election time?

by Nic George (he/him)

chief reporter


Every election cycle, we hear the same concerns raised about young voters not showing up to the polls.

In the 2020 General Election, only 61 per cent of eligible voters under 25 voted, which was an 11 per cent increase over 2017. However, this was still significantly lower than the over-50 voting bloc with 86 per cent in 2020.


Low young voter turnout is not a new phenomenon. Looking back as far as the 2002 General Election, we can see that only 62 per cent of 18–24-year-olds cast their ballots.


The youngest sitting MP, Chlöe Swarbrick of the Greens, said young voters often don’t see themselves represented in political spaces.


"People don't necessarily feel as though there's action occurring on the things that they care about which then means that they disengage from the broader political sphere.”


Engagement Trustee for the Social Change Collective, Finn Shewell, echoed Swarbrick’s concerns.


“I would say faith in institutions is probably quite low for young people. If there are no candidates that represent your interests, why would you take part at all?"


Shewell shared his personal experience in helping his younger brother through his first election cycle.


“He said no parties grab his attention by doing something to improve the life of a student or young person - and if they're trying to, they haven't advertised them in the right spaces for the people concerned to find out about it.”


He also points to the number of young people in tough socio-economic situations as a large factor in low votes.


"There's a lot of people who are busy focusing on surviving, and they can't really afford to be politically or civically engaged in the moment because they're too busy trying to figure out how to put a meal on the table."


The cost-of-living crisis has placed a burden on young people and students as they struggle to make ends meet.

A recent student survey conducted by AUTSA found that 70 per cent of AUT students are losing “studying time” because they need to spend more time at work.


Respondents also reported financial hardship has led to them going without food, health care, clothing, and other necessities.


Swarbrick said this issue creates a “negative feedback loop” leading to further disenfranchisement.


"When you disengage, you end up with even less representation because there's less pressure on politicians.

"That lack of representation results in less action on things that people care about."


She said it’s important to make a clear distinction between apathy and disenfranchisement.


"Diagnosing young people's disengagement with politics as apathy is kind of missing the point.”


"I think that they tend to be more disenfranchised, and more distrustful of a system and an institution and cultural and structural norms that don't look, or sound like them."


She said the best ‘antidote’ for low engagement levels is through collective action and community building.


"Our House of Representatives needs to do the work to become more relevant to younger voters."


Labour’s Auckland Central candidate, Oscar Sims, said he thinks more young people should also consider other avenues for political action.


"Our politicians aren't going to listen to the voice of youth unless we make them, so that's where grassroots political campaigning and activism can be quite good."


Sims comes from an advocacy background as a spokesperson for the ‘Coalition for More Homes’ prior to joining the Labour Party in the hopes of becoming the first Gen-Z MP.


Shewell said he would like to see a more symbiotic relationship between representatives and their constituents.


"I think the biggest failure of our current system, as it stands, is people don't feel like their representatives are accessible.”


"There needs to be a back and forth - it can't just be your candidates offering stuff up and you saying 'No, I don't like it.'"


Sims said education reforms could help better prepare young people for the political sphere.


"There's a case there for thinking about how we better teach our young people in schools about civics and about the political system.”


He said Labour doesn’t have any current plans to include a revamp to civics education in schools, but he is hopeful that the party’s commitment to financial literacy improvements could be a step in the right direction.


"If you're teaching kids how KiwiSaver works and how interest rates work? I think that allows people to have more informed reckons around the economy and economic policy."


He also shared optimism about the voting reforms Labour passed lowering the voting age in local elections, and the opportunity this offers people to get a taste of the democratic process.


"Voting is a habit, right? If they're young and they start voting in their first election, they keep voting.”


"I think that that will have flow and effects long term on people becoming kind of habitual lifelong voters."


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