Experts are touting the up-and-coming elections in the UK as the most unpredictable, close contest in recent years. There has been a dramatic loss of confidence in the established political parties since the economic crisis and wave of political scandals, with the fractured vote in 2010 creating a fragile coalition government.
This uncertainty means young people have the opportunity to become a powerful voting force for the first time. Traditionally, the young have low turnout levels, hitting a low of 44% in the 2010 general election. However, recent research from Demos reveals that three in four young people are likely to vote this year even though 44% are undecided about which party to support.
Technology and Youth Engagement
The ultimate decision of the young voting force could swing up to 200 seats this May. So, politicians should encourage and engage with this surge in political engagement from the younger millennials (born 1980-1999) and digital natives (born from 2000). But, unlike their older counterparts, these groups are accustomed to entirely different media touch-points and can’t be reached by traditional methods like door-to-door canvassing or television broadcasts.
Technology has the potential to make a significant impact, as young people are highly immersed in the digital landscape. At Cyber-Duck we’ve seen how even simple solutions like a mobile optimised website has increased engagement in what the EU offers UK citizens. So, how can technology improve the engagement of young people in the up and coming elections?
Improve online policy communication
Firstly, it’s difficult for young (often new) voters to know where to start, particularly now that the larger parties are becoming smaller, and smaller parties have the potential to be coalition kingmakers. Choosing whether to vote at the local or national level adds to the complexity.
But to make matters worse, most parties choose to present themselves in strikingly similar ways on their websites. Though the policies of the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties are different in practice, most use the same language to present their general manifesto: working towards a ‘fairer society’, with a ‘stronger economy’, ‘for all people’. Struggling to target both devotees and prospective voters, there’s often no clear path through the website, with users restricted to learning party policy on individual issues only. Instead, political websites should offer summaries of the party’s manifesto in straightforward, succinct language, taking inspiration from usability best practices by integrating lists, infographics, images and video. They should also cater to all audiences, with usability testing ensuring that they are doing so effectively.
Develop a Voting Advice Application
Aside from parties’ own websites, media analysis should be a valuable source of political information. They are better placed to compare parties’ positions on key issues, given their (ideally) more neutral stance. Examples include the BBC’s Manifesto Watch and the Huffington Post’s summary of what parties offer young people. However, election coverage moves quickly, assuming a level of background knowledge on party history and powerful individuals, rather than providing an introduction. Crucially, a recent study found that only 18% of young people trust mainstream media to address their values and needs, following their belief that publications portray their age group negatively.
Overall, it’s clear further resources are needed to raise political engagement. For the moment, youth-targeted websites like Bite the Ballot and Swing the Vote are more successful by providing targeted, persuasive resources for young people.
But I believe developing a Voting Advice Application (VAA) could make a real impact. These web applications concisely code party positions across crucial electoral issues, from the economy to employment. They help voters make an informed decision, by inviting users to take the quiz and find the political party which best matches their opinions. VAAs are already popular across Europe, integrated into the electoral process in Germany and the Netherlands across the last decade.
Of course, development is complex. Careful attention must be devoted to avoid bias (and jargon) when selecting the relevant political issues, collecting statements from parties and presenting them to users in the final quiz. As VAAs are best suited to first-time or undecided voters, a comprehensive user-centred design process would be necessary to assess and understand their needs. EUvox was a good resource for the European parliament elections last year, and I look forward to exploring Vote Match, launching later this month for the UK.
Mobilise through social media
Social media has transformed the way current affairs and news are distributed and consumed, particularly when targeting young people; 43% now find stories through social media, and are more likely to click on links shared by their network.
Political parties must engage across social media platforms – from Twitter and Facebook, to YouTube and Instagram – as a real part of their election campaign. Currently, too many official party and individual MP profiles rely on a ‘broadcast’ style, with tweets full of political advertising and little interaction and debate. They often use social media as a negative platform, announcing their party’s stance against heavy criticism of others. This is old-fashioned practice, against evidence that young people don’t respond to negative campaigning.
Moving away from impersonal broadcasting, parties and politicians must use social media as a digital space for real engagement with voters. A valuable ‘human face’ can be added to politics, through tactics as simple as replying to tweets and comments, welcoming debate, and interacting with new media sources. This use of social media as an engagement tool (rather than broadcasting) is fast becoming the norm for the commercial world.
There’s a number of ways political parties can go further. For instance, they could get involved in Bite the Ballot’s viral #LeadersLive online debates (lead by popular YouTubers). President Obama is way ahead of the curve, appearing in a Buzzfeed video (complete with a selfie stick) to encourage Americans to sign up for healthcare insurance.Unsurprisingly, the video has gained close to two million views.
Another Demos poll even found one in four young people would be more likely to vote if they knew (via social media) that friends and family had already done so. Facebook’s shareable ‘I’ve voted’ button was used to great effect during Obama’s 2012 campaign. More recently, it was adopted here for the Scottish referendum, which drove an exceptional turnout, at 80%. Thankfully, they’re working with the British Electoral Commission for the first time this year, encouraging voter registration.
Raise registered voters through automation
Even the British electoral registration system could now be considered a significant barrier to youth participation. Over the summer, the voter registration system was quietly transformed, switching from Household to Individual Voter Registration (IER).
Previously, universities could act as the ‘head of the household’ and register eligible students collectively. Following concern about voter fraud, each person within a household (like students) must now register individually as they change address, supplying documentation to confirm their identities. With little publicity about the significant change, close to one million people have dropped off the register – and most are students and young people, as this system discriminates against the more mobile, rent-based population. Just last week, the Electoral Commission reported that cities with large student populations have experienced registration falls of over 10%.
Again technology could provide a solution as it has done in Australia. Working closely with schools to raise first-time registration, Australia’s technical system tracks all registered voters, and cross-references databases if they move address. The results are phenomenal. For instance, with a population of 7 million, New South Wales has managed to achieve a 95% accurate register through this process, with less resources than comparable areas in the UK.
From physical to digital voting
Online voting offers a significant opportunity to increase turnout from the young, digital generation, who shop, socialise, work and consume entertainment online. To them, the idea of having to physically enter a local polling station to vote seems alien and out-dated, considering how much personal and financial information we entrust to IT and Internet systems every day.
Although unchanged for this election, many believe the ‘digital democracy’ will arrive by 2020, with adoption of ‘e-voting’ technologies on some level. This may only involve replacing paper with button or touch-screen technologies in polling stations, or could extend to allocating secure IDs and helping people to vote online, taking the controversy about the Estonian e-voting system into account. Supported by the head of the Electoral Commission, the campaign for a new strategy to integrate our electoral system with digital technologies is gaining momentum. Many believe that shifting voter registration online last June was a crucial first step.
There is already plenty of powerful, emotive analysis highlighting the vicious circle currently preventing higher political engagement among young people. Politicians are not prioritising the issues that matter to the young (such as student loans, housing, and employment opportunities) while they are not part of the electorate. But, young people are not inclined to vote without these problems being addressed. YouGov revealed 82% of young people believe politicians do not communicate effectively with them earlier this week.
Working towards true engagement between parties and young people can break this stalemate. Technological innovation is a great place to start: from genuine engagement via social media and effective websites, to developing VAAs, automated registration systems and e-voting.