Bryce Edwards: “Youthquake” fails to shake NZ

Bryce Edwards: “Youthquake” fails to shake NZ

In the lead-up to this year’s election there was conflict amongst political pundits and activists about whether a “youthquake” was set to rattle the foundations of the status quo. And the debate has been reignited with the Electoral Commission releasing contentious data this week about voter turnout of different age groups.

The original debate was parodied after the election in the National Business Review, which published its own piece of fake news about the lack of a youthquake. Titled, “Quake recovery work continues”, the earnest news report stated: “There were frantic scenes this week as pundits worked around the clock to reach the victims of a devastating seismic shock that never happened. As many as no bodies are now understood to have been recovered. The so-called youthquake was scheduled to hit New Zealand last weekend, with its epicentre located around most of the country’s university campuses. The sudden surge had been expected to knock out National’s power system. To date, though, the only bodies recovered appear to have been well-known pundits.”

Youthquake forecasts “vindicated”

On Wednesday, the Electoral Commission released its official Voter turnout statistics. These appeared to show that voter turnout had increased significantly amongst younger age groups. This is best conveyed in Laura Walters’ Young voter turnout up by 6.5 per cent. Looking at the official figures, Walters reported “The turnout for the 18-24 age bracket rose from 62.7 per cent in 2014, to 69.3 per cent in 2017.”

Similarly, the turnout figures for Maori voters were reported to have increased, with Susan Strongman saying “Maori voter turnout increased by 3.5 percentage points across both the Maori and general rolls this year – from 67.6 percent in 2014 to 71.1 percent in 2017” – see: Youth voter turnout gets a big bump.

These reports had some activists buoyant and Martyn Bradbury proclaimed that the lesson was: “Don’t listen to mainstream pundits” – see: Mainstream media claim no Youth Quake.

Gordon Campbell expressed his satisfaction with the results, saying “youth turnout in New Zealand among the under 30s would be the envy of most other developed countries. Our millennials rocked the vote this year” – see: New Eyes on Trade.

The real story about youth voter turnout

However, as Massey University political scientist Grant Duncan told the AM Show, “You have to remember the commission’s figures are a percentage of the enrolled voters”. Duncan pointed out that the picture of youth turnout is actually very different when you take into account the fact that a huge proportion of young eligible voters didn’t enrol this year –  in fact, these statistics went backwards – see Newshub’s Election ‘youthquake’ a myth, figures show.

According to this report, “While turnout for 18 to 24-year-olds on the electoral roll jumped from 62.7 percent to 69.3 percent, there were actually fewer in that age group enrolled to vote in 2017 than in 2014.” The overall result is that voter turnout amongst youth hardly increased at all, and stayed at incredibly low levels – only about half of young people in the 18-24-year-old category voted.

I’ve carried out my own analysis of the figures, which suggests that, roughly, “the 18-24-year-old age group went from 48% turnout in 2014 to 50% turnout in 2017. This was a 2 percentage point increase. For the 25-29-year-old range, there was a 3-percentage point increase, from 51% to 54%. And in the next band, 30-34-year-olds, the increase was 5 percentage points – from 59% to nearly 64%. The other age bands didn’t change much” – see my blog post, No real youthquake in 2017.

Similarly, once you take into account adult New Zealanders who don’t enrol, the overall voter turnout for the election amongst all age groups was about 73 per cent. This was up only about 1 percentage point, from 72 per cent in 2014. Hence, the turnout appears to be the third lowest since women got the vote. Therefore, the so-called “missing million” voters – or 963,854, by my calculations – were still absent from the electoral process.

Using a similar approach, blogger David Farrar says there was No youthquake. And Gwynn Compton also declares there “wasn’t a youthquake, but a youth tremor”, and that “those aged 18-24 made up a lower percentage of overall enrolments than they did in 2014” – see: Greying population and youth tremor sees middle age voter squeeze.

It’s also worth checking out Compton’s excellent number crunching of age statistics in his latest blog post, Youngest, oldest, most & least representative electorates.

Why is youth participation so low?

RNZ’s Brent Edwards looks at the turnout statistics for youth, and also concludes that “in the end only just over half of all young people – including those who didn’t enrol – voted” – see: More young people voted, but no youth quake.

He interviews “Five first-time voters from Aotea College in Porirua” to find out “why so many of their peers did not vote or enrol to vote”. Overall, he says, “They believe for a number it might have been because they did not understand the parties’ policies.” You can also listen to their explanations in the three-minute interview: More young votes in Election 2017, but no ‘youthquake’.

The low voter turnout of youth needs to be contextualised amongst bigger changes in society in recent decades. This is where Canterbury University political scientist Bronwyn Hayward is focused in her diagnosis. She is reported as believing “compared with the baby boomers, millennials have lost a lot of the traditional institutions – churches, trade unions, even sports teams – that used to foster a sense of social solidarity”, and atomised individuals don’t participate in politics like they used to – see Steve Liddle’s article, Election leaves plenty to improve in democracy.

This article also focuses on local attempts that have been made to increase voter turnout via publicity and social campaigns. For example, “Founded in 2014, RockEnrol, adopted a ‘sizzle and steak’ approach aimed at empowering 18- to 29-year-olds to vote… RockEnrol organised music, parties, celebrities and shareable content as the ‘sizzle’ to attract sign-up pledges, with the ‘steak’ the later follow-up calls.”

Do these awareness and marketing campaigns have an impact on voter turnout? Victoria University of Wellington sociologist Jack Foster thinks not. Based on his research, he says that such outreach campaigns and the inevitable call for more civics education misses the point. There are bigger societal, economic and political changes that impact on political participation – see his article, The Trauma of the Non-Voter.

Foster’s main point is this: Non-voters “are perhaps not some apathetic, disinterested subject who shirks their citizen duties, but rather a symptom of a wider democratic malaise; a morbid symptom of a civilisation in which democracy has been ‘hollowed out’.”

Of course, it’s not only younger people who are voting in lower numbers than the rest of society. According to Grant Duncan, “electorates with a large number of poor and immigrants also have lower turnouts” – see Newshub’s Election ‘youthquake’ a myth, figures show. Duncan says, “There’s really quite a kind of social inequality and an economic inequality in relation to who turns out, as well as the age issue.”

Maori, too, are voting in much lower numbers – about 10 percentage points lower than non-Maori. And to explain this, Laura O’Connell Rapira, of Rock Enrol, says it’s about colonisation: “research shows that one of the main reasons that Maori don’t vote in higher numbers than Pakeha, is because of historical distrust towards the Crown because of our colonial history” – see Susan Strongman’s Youth voter turnout gets a big bump.

The best post-election discussion about why youth didn’t vote in greater numbers is the Herald article written by young lawyer Christian Smith – see: What happened to the youthquake?

While Smith’s whole article is well worth reading, his conclusion is important. He argues that, although this year’s election campaign involved many crucial issues for youth voters, the differences between what the parties were offering simply weren’t great enough to mobilise large numbers of young people to participate.

Here’s his conclusion: “by the end of the New Zealand election the gap between Labour and National’s youth policies, while not small, was no longer decisive. For many, the difference eventually came down to whose plan would work better, not who understood the issues better. The irony for Labour is that Jacindamania and Labour’s policies on youth forced National to engage on issues they had been happy to ignore for nine years. Consequently for young people, the difference between a National-led future and a Labour one became less dramatic.”

Finally, it’s worth considering whether all this focus on youth turnout is actually so important. After all there are many other ways of being political. And this is what political science student Brodie Fraser argues in her opinion piece, Screw parliament: how you can create political change right now.