Social media and youth electoral engagement within democracy.

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Formal engagement with official democratic processes has traditionally been the most frequent avenue for research when investigating youth participation. Formal methods of engagement could include:

  • Electoral roll registration
  • Voting in elections
  • Party membership
  • Contacting your local representative
  • Registering as an election official

Such practices provide for large quantities of easily attainable data, which can often lead to an over-reliance on figures such as voter turnout or enrolment statistics in an attempt to gauge levels of youth engagement. There are of course many methods of democratic engagement that these figures do not consider, however they can be a good indicator.

Democracy itself hinges on majority participation, Peter Dahlgren states that it is “the engagement of citizens that gives democracy its legitimacy as well as its vitality” (Dahlgren, 2008). Formal engagement is particularly important in representative forms of democracy evident in Western democracies such as Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom where citizens are tasked with selecting agents (politicians) to represent them. Click here to read more about forms of democracy.

The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC), Australia’s commonwealth agency overseeing all federal elections, publishes a range of statistics each year outlining voter registration and election turnout figures. The figures are very detailed and you can view the elector count by division, age group and gender.

You can also view the AEC’s published data on the size of the electoral roll and estimated participation rate as at 31 March 2014 for individual states and territories in Australia.

The AEC revealed that approximately 20% of eligible voters in Australia did not vote in the 2010 federal election, and a staggering 25% of young people (under the age of 25) did not enrol for the most recent federal election in 2013 (McGrath 2013). When looking at young people specifically between the ages of 18-24, 400,000 of them did not enrol prior to the cut off date, leaving them them ineligible to vote (McGrath 2013).

When reflecting on past elections in Australia the AEC had found that a approximately 3 million Australians did not participate in the election. 1.5 million of those who did not partake in the vote were un-enrolled and around 750,0000 voted informally (McGrath 2013).

The AEC have acted against the lack of voting by encouraging people to enrol online. Meanwhile, the United States has tried to improve voter turnout by sending text messages to remind people to vote – it’s believed that this campaign alone contributed to a 3% increase in votes cast (Dale & Strauss 2009).

The AEC has conducted a number of digital and physical campaigns to encourage young people to register to vote and participate in elections across Australia.

In the United States, an organisation called “Rock the Vote” encourages young people to exercise their right to vote. However, the US does differ to Australia in that voting is not compulsory.

In 2008, the United States achieved one of their best voter turnout results on record and had successfully appealed to young people in particular. Voting rates for Americans under the age of 29 had risen three times higher than those over the age of 30 (Dale & Strauss 2009). There are numerous studies that have been undertaken to try and explain how and why this campaign was so successful in engaging the youth of America.

One of the reasons why the Obama campaign was so successful was because it took advantage of all of the technologies available at the time. The website was set up in a way that appealed to young people and gave easy access to information. Event information, location sign ups were all a large part of the website that aimed to encourage people to engage and sign up. A personalised touch was also added to give youths the satisfaction of knowing they were being looked after – this took form of personalised emails sent to those who had signed up along with a personalised phone call.

Not only did this campaign draw in thousands of young voters, but it encouraged participation. 1.5 million people were involved in volunteer activities and roughly 3,000 trained full time organisers (majority of them in their 20’s) were part of the hype, giving this campaign the title of “the most wired supporter network in American history” (Dale & Strauss, 2009, p.129).

We can now see a trend in the way the web has developed; allowing for geographical tracking to send out certain emails and newsletters to certain voters situated in specific towns and communities (Thrift, 2008). Blogs, newsletters and twitter accounts are all being used by politicians to open up a line of communication that allows for individuals to have their say. Thrift elaborates on this explaining that “the idea is to maintain constant contact with voters and to mobilise their concerns to political ends” (Thrift, 2008, p.250).This type of open communication is an attempt to personalise participation between the voter and the party and give individuals the sense of satisfaction that they do have a voice.

Encouraging participation in formal electoral processes of democracy is evidently seen to be just as important as political messaging and campaigning in the lead up to an election.