Youth Electoral Study (YES) - Report 3: 5. The Family and Learning about How to Enrol To Vote

Updated: 20 January 2011

5. The Family and Learning about How to Enrol To Vote

So far we have discussed the family and how young people learn about politics more broadly. In the next two sections we focus specifically on learning about enrolling to vote, and about elections and voting.

5.1 The Family and Attitudes Towards Voting in the YES Survey

In our first report we pointed out that young people tended to regard voting as a hassle, a waste of time and boring (Print, Saha and Edwards 2004, 16). We want to know whether closer contact with the family in terms of information about voting has an impact on these negative attitudes. To do this, we first examine in more detail whether increases in source of information are linked with the intention to vote.

Figure 3 clearly shows that the more the students acknowledge influence from their parents about voting, the more they themselves intend to vote. This is shown in the percentage of students who say they would definitely vote when 18. For students who 'strongly agreed' with the statement, 49.2% said they definitely would vote, while for students who 'strongly disagreed', only 22.9% said they would vote.

Figure 3: My parents have strongly influenced my attitude towards voting: and Intention to Vote at 18

Clearly, parental influence has a strong positive effect with respect to youth voting. What we now want to know, is whether increased information from parents leads to more positive attitudes towards voting. In Figure 4 we extend this analysis, but use a different strategy. In this figure, the extent of agreement or disagreement with the statement is correlated with a number of attitudinal items related to voting.

Figure 4 indicates that the more the student is likely to say that their family has influenced their attitudes toward voting, the more positive are their attitudes toward voting, the more they feel prepared to vote, and the more they say they will vote, even if non-compulsory. Interestingly the survey data in Figures 3 & 4 on voting conflict with some of the earlier qualitative data on politics discussed in section 4. In part this may be explained by the students' perceptual difference between voting and discussing politics, and second, it must be remembered that the discussion groups represent somewhat different data to the survey. In the groups students had a greater opportunity to discuss the range and depth of their feelings towards their parents on the issue of how significantly they have been positively influenced on political issues.

Figure 4: Correlation between family political influence and student attitudes toward voting

These two figures indicate that although not all parents exert a strong influence over their children regarding politics, those who do, affect their children in a positive manner. Parental influence must be taken into account in explaining the difference between politically engaged youth and those who are not politically engaged.

5.2 The Provision of Information about Enrolling to Vote, Voting and Elections by Parents

We interviewed participants in YES between the ages of 15 and 18 when enrolling to vote as well as learning about elections and voting are age-appropriate activities. The fact that young people in Australia can enrol to vote at 17, and indeed are encouraged to do so, (although they cannot actually vote until they are 18), provides impetus either for young people to ask for information or for parents to independently provide this. Enrolling to vote may be considered as one of many 'rites of passage' into adulthood, though it rates very low (Print, Saha & Edwards, 2004). Some participants were motivated by developing their own political views as part of attaining maturity. Further, it was likely that participants' parents were assisting many through other rites of passage including obtaining a driver's license and entering the world of post-secondary study or work. We were keen in this context to determine if parents also assisted young people with acquiring knowledge related to enrolling to vote, elections and voting.

To this end we were interested to explore how much the young people who participated in YES had learnt about enrolling to vote, elections and voting in the family environment as well as what they had learnt. There are many possibilities for learning about aspects of enrolling to vote, voting and elections within the family. Some of these methods are direct, others indirect. There is, for example, scope through young people directly asking for information about aspects of enrolling or through parents providing this information unsolicited. There is also scope for the direct transmission of knowledge during elections and particularly when parents attend polling booths. This provides an opportunity for parents to explain aspects of voting to their (usually young) children, and for children to ask questions related to elections and voting. It also allows for children to learn indirectly through observation of their parents and of activities more generally at polling booths.

In this section we focus on how participants learn about enrolling to vote. To this end in our focus groups we asked what factors had motivated or prevented participants from enrolling to vote, and we also asked participants where they had come across information about enrolling to vote.

5.3 The Family and Learning How to Enrol to Vote

Participants in YES who had enrolled to vote discussed their motivations for doing so. The majority were well aware of the legal compulsion to enrol and vote and the fines for not doing so. A minority was motivated to enrol by philosophical concerns, while others wanted to vote and were keen to enrol because they saw it as part of 'growing-up' or because they wanted to have their say. But in a practical sense most were motivated when the opportunity presented itself, for example where schools provided forms or where they were sent forms in the mail. In many cases parents had facilitated, or were expected to facilitate, enrolment. Here parents had variously provided the impetus for a participant filling out the form, or they had obtained the form and pressured the participant to sign it, or had gone so far as to obtain the form and fill it out, requiring only that the participant sign it. In rare cases other family members prompted participants to enrol.

Of interest here is the 'passivity' of enrolling. Relatively few students sought out the form and filled it out on their own volition. This is in contrast to the way, described above, to how many sought information about politics. According to participants both they and their parents agree that it is part of the parental role to facilitate the procedural aspects of enrolment. Not only was this demonstrated by the fact that many parents had performed this task, or were expected to do so, it was also demonstrated by participants' emotional responses. These are evident in Exhibit 9 in some of the ways that participants describe their parents facilitating their enrolment. These responses are various and include neutrality, resignation and mild indignation. No participant suggested that actual conflict had arisen during this process. Most reported that they had simply done as they were told.

We identified earlier a gender differential in terms of the family members with whom participants discussed political issues. Male family members, and particularly fathers, were most likely to be mentioned in this context. Of significance in Exhibit 9 is that whereas many participants referred generically to 'parents' facilitating their enrolment there was a tendency for 'mothers' in particular to be singled out as the parent who took, or who would be expected to take on, the responsibility for ensuring that participants filled out their enrolment forms. Indeed mothers were often described as obtaining the form, filling it out and then simply requiring the enrolee to sign. Fathers were mentioned too, and so was a grandfather, but mothers were mentioned in this role more than any other adult family member.

Exhibit 9: Motivation Within Families to Enrol and Vote

At Rural View High School most of the students reported that their mothers would enrol them, and had done so already for older siblings.

At Frenchtown High School one student, who was 17, had enrolled to vote because "mum had the enrolment form" and indeed had filled out this form for the student concerned.

Participants at Scholl High School reported that their parents would get the forms for them in order that they could enrol to vote.

At Crowfield Agricultural College most students had turned 17 or 18 in 2004. Most of this group had enrolled to vote at a local university open day. However Jeremiah, who was 18, enrolled because his mother had reminded him about it.

Jacob from Johnson Catholic College explained that when the family moved house his mother had collected enrolment forms for the whole family. She had filled out the form for him and merely required that he sign it.

At Leighton College parents had been instrumental in persuading participants to enrol to vote. Some parents had assisted participants to fill out the enrolment form. Others said they didn't think their parents would help then unless they asked first.

At Northcott Secondary College a student had enrolled because her father reminded her to do so.

At Beachside College a student said that he had been motivated to enrol and vote because his mother had filled out the form and asked that he sign it.

Tia from Wickham College remembered her sister being told to enrol to vote when she was 18, "because of the fines".

Tawny from The Lakes High School was encouraged to enrol by her grandfather, who thought it an important thing for her to do.

Students at Sancta Sophia Catholic College also reported their parents would make them enrol.

Erica from Dampier High School said "my dad sent me a form and said enrol now!"

Willow and Simmy from Dampier High School said they had enrolled because their mothers had insisted they fill out the forms.

A student at Gray's High School said his mother had 'forced' him to sign the form.

5.4 Parents as Sources of Knowledge or Facilitators

In our first report Enrolment and Voting (Print, Saha and Edwards 2004) we discussed preparedness to vote in the context of knowledge about voting. We identified that only half of our survey participants felt they had enough knowledge to understand the party system and political issues in order to vote. Further there was a gender dimension with more female respondents feeling less prepared to vote, in terms of knowledge, than male respondents.

Our focus group research reveals that very few participants indicated their parents provided any factual information about either process beyond stating that enrolment was necessary and providing the form. In large measure enrolling to vote was a procedural business, a necessary bureaucratic process. It was not associated with an opportunity to impart knowledge about any aspect of the democratic process. Two rare exceptions to this rule appear in Exhibit 10.

Exhibit 10: Parents and Information about Enrolling to Vote

At Trenton College most students said that they had discussed enrolling and voting with their parents and also older siblings. Lauren's parents stressed the importance of informed voting. Debby's parents said it was fair to vote. In Dara's case she said that she felt "capable of voting" and that she had talked with her parents and as a result had felt motivated to enrol.

A student at St Luke's College had wanted to enrol. She didn't know how so she asked her mother "I only found out yesterday how to enrol, I didn't know so I asked my mum".

Given that survey respondents and focus group participants both identified families, and, particularly parents, as important sources of knowledge about politics and voting, we combined feelings about 'lack of knowledge' and 'parents as an information source' in the second year of our focus-group research. Here we were concerned to gather responses regarding possible strategies that may encourage voting. Some of the possibilities suggested to interviewees drew upon these reported feelings about lack of knowledge and suggested ways that knowledge could be provided. One option was that parents could assist with filling out the enrolment form and, at the same time, provide some information about enrolling and voting.

We received very mixed responses to this question. A variety of these are presented in Exhibit 11. Some participants agreed that this would be useful and a way of combining the process of enrolling to vote with gaining more information. Some suggested that their parents would do this anyway (although as noted above it was rare for parents to be reported as actually doing this). Others were more ambivalent, suggesting that they may not actually listen to advice given. This could, of course, also explain the lack of reporting of parents who had performed this role. There were also those who were more overtly negative about this strategy. These participants suggested that they would find parental intervention in the form of information giving as 'patronising' or demeaning. Although there was general acceptance that parents would facilitate enrolment through the provision of forms, there was less than general acceptance that parents should also provide information.

Exhibit 11: Student Views about Parental Assistance with Enrolment

At Scholl High School (where participants expected parents to provide enrolment forms), participants, when asked if it would be useful and motivational for parents to explain the process of enrolment and voting agreed that it would not be.

Interviewees at Rural View High School also expected parents to provide enrolment forms. However here it was agreed that it would be useful to have parents explain about enrolling and voting.

Participants from Johnson Catholic College agreed that having parents give them enrolment forms and explaining the process to them would be useful.

Participants from Pinehill Catholic College were more ambivalent with one saying that it would be ineffective because children didn't listen to their parents.

The boys at St Jude's for the most part felt that parents would be neither motivational or influential although one reported that his parents had already explained aspects of enrolling and voting to him.

At St Margaret's College the girls were ambivalent about the idea of having parents explain the enrolment process and voting. Some said "it depends on the parents" and another said she was tired of her parents "telling me stuff".

Participants at George St High School indicated that they would find this method patronising. One girl said that she came from a migrant family and that her parents don't have the same knowledge that she does.

Given the diversity of familial relationships and individual personalities this range of responses is not unexpected. Our research does show that this strategy would be useful in some contexts, however, and thus may be worthwhile pursuing.

There was one other type of response to this question that that bears further discussion. The response of a participant at George Street High School exemplifies this. This participant suggests that this strategy would be ineffective, not because they would be personally adverse to it, but because he considers that his parents would not know enough about politics and voting to inform him. In some cases, but not all, this latter response was made where participants came from migrant or NESB backgrounds, or where parents were not eligible to enrol and vote.

Of course we only have one participant reporting of this parental lack of knowledge. Our intent was to find out what the young people themselves thought would be useful, not what parents considered they could provide, so parental views were not sought. But here the issues of parental resources and the intergenerational transfer of these resources are again raised, as they were in Section 4. Parents are clearly identified as a major information source and they have been identified as instrumental in motivating their children to enrol. Yet many parents, it seems, are considered by their children as not having adequate resources to do this. Here the issue may be building the resource base of parents.

Key Points:

  1. Many participants report parental assistance in the procedural aspects of enrolling to vote.
  2. Many participants actively expect that their parents will assist them to enrol to vote.
  3. Although some participants had approached parents with requests for information about enrolling to vote in most cases they were 'passive' in the process of enrolling to vote and waited for external motivation.
  4. There was a gender dimension to parental motivation to enrol to vote with mothers most frequently described as the parent who motivates and facilitates enrolment.
  5. Mixed responses were received from participants to the suggestion of a strategy whereby parents facilitate enrolment and provide information about voting.
  6. Some participants reported that the parental information strategy would not be useful because parents lacked knowledge. This again raises issues of parental resources and the generational transfer of these.