Opinion | Young people staying away from polls in droves (again)

Young voters have a distorted perception of local politicans, the author argues.

The electoral trend among young people this year is looking very much like a throwback to 2009. The latest statistics show that half of all young voters don’t plan to cast a ballot in the local election on November 19.

In 2009, just 47.1 percent of 18 to 29 year-olds voted. This time around, 47.1 percent say they either won’t vote or are undecided about whether they will vote, according to an InFact/Interior Ministry poll of 1,022 voters taken on September 18 in 17 representative councils. In comparison, 24.7 percent of the population at large say they don’t intend to vote.

The result comes as little surprise. Voters have lost a lot of interest in local politics in recent years. In 2009, we saw the lowest voter turnout in 35 years. Young people are leading the charge, particularly when it comes to the migration away from traditional campaign events like meeting candidates at the community centre, handshakes on the high street or beaming faces staring at them from campaign placards.

The reason for this is twofold.

Dusty and out of touch
Firstly, young voters by and large see local politics as old-fashioned and feel that the decision-making process is carried out behind closed doors. The political decisions they do make have little to do with their daily lives, they feel. At the same time, many feel left out of their local community, regardless of whether this is their own doing or not.

Studies have shown that young people are active and involved in their community. This enthusiasm, however, does not extend to local politics. One of the explanations is that adults aren’t good enough at explaining why local politics are relevant to them.

Over the past four years, we have seen a number of councils launch initiatives to encourage young people to vote, but the majority have done little to address the pitiful turnout among young voters.

Another problem is that local councils aren’t communicating with young people correctly. Few councils are active on social media, and those who are don’t really do a good job of using it. Local councils need to get serious and find out how to communicate with young people using platforms where their message is likely to be heard and answered. Doing so would create a greater sense of openness about what the council does and what it hopes to achieve.

Old and incumbent
Secondly, many young people have a distorted image of who local councillors are. In their eyes, local politicians are people who only take an interest in them every fourth year. Local councillors need to be visible to them for more than just the three weeks leading up to the election. They need to involve young people in projects they can see have an effect on them. Young people want influence, and they want it now. Fortunately for local politicians, they don’t need to parody ‘Gangnam Style’ or try to be politics’ answer to Rihanna or One Direction in order to turn young people on to local politics.

On the other hand, neither should local politicians simply seek to be local regents for elected officials in parliament. Local councils are not there for national politicians to micromanage, even though the 2007 municipal reform may have left many people in doubt about which responsibilities actually belong to local officials and which decisions are made by Copenhagen. With this uncertainty about how much influence local councillors actually have, it should come as little surprise that 58 percent of councils have trouble attracting young candidates. In the November election, 84 percent of candidates will be incumbents. In the 2009 election, the average age among candidates was 59. Voters, on the other hand, were 39 on average. It doesn’t look like that will be going down this election.

The start of a bad habit
The low turnout among young voters is more than just a problem in the short-term. It also serves to undermine local political culture in general since studies have shown that people’s electoral habits are formed in their youth. Moreover, if the biggest electoral groups are middle-aged voters, the decisions elected officials take will reflect that. Parents, schools, politicians and the council itself all have a responsibility to get young people engaged in politics.

If we are to see our local councils keep up with social developments, we need to find new ways for them to engage and involve young people. We need far more non-traditional political events held between elections. We should hold more mock elections at schools, and we need to promote participation in youth councils and political conferences for young people as a way to get people interested in bearing political responsibility.

In order to promote these kinds of initiatives, Danske Regioner (the national association of regional councils) and KL (the national association of local councils) recently launched several initiatives aimed at increasing voter turnout among young people. Only time will tell whether they will work. What is certain is that there is no one single thing we can do to reverse the trend.

Five recommendations for improving youth voter turnout:
– Visible local politicians between elections
– Widespread use of social media
– Encourage young people who are already active in their community to consider getting involved in politics
– Make lessons about the importance of local politics a part of the school curriculum
– Let young people decide which local political initiatives should be supported

The author is a political analyst.