Youth Electoral Study (YES) - Report 3: 6. The Family and Learning How to Vote at Elections

Updated: 20 January 2011

6. The Family and Learning How to Vote at Elections

In this section we discuss learning within the family about elections and the process of voting. By elections and voting in this context we mean the philosophical context of elections and voting (what role they play in Australia's democracy, why they are important) as well as procedural aspects (what happens at a polling booth).

6.1 Experiences of Visiting Polling Booths

In the first year of our focus group research we asked Year 11 students if they had been to a polling place with their parents. We also asked them to describe this experience. We were interested both in what they learnt and their emotional responses to the experience.

To begin with not all of our participants had shared in this childhood experience. Those born to parents ineligible to vote in Australia were denied this early learning experience, as were some who grew up outside of Australia (depending on where they were raised). Again this raises the issue of the transmission of parental resources to children, and the importance of ensuring that parents are also equipped with resources that can be transmitted.

We encountered mixed responses to forced attendance at polling booths, with perceptions tending towards the negative, as discussed in Exhibit 12. Although such experiences may in theory be valuable in terms of positive reinforcement and learning it may be that in practice their value is more ambivalent. Some participants considered that their childhood attendance at polling booths was 'boring' because while their parents voted they had been left to wait. Some complained that they had to wait in the family car, where, removed from the 'action', they had limited scope to learn by observation anyway.

Exhibit 12: Experiences at Polling Booths

Most of the girls at Sancta Sophia Catholic College had been to polling booths with their parents. One girl in this group was particularly politically active and aware and had enjoyed the experience. When discussion turned to attendance at polling booths debate ensued between her and three of her less interested classmates who said "the people who give you pamphlets are really annoying", "it's boring", "it's a waste of time" and "it takes hours and hours".

Jill from Gore High School reported, "voting looked too complicated".

Responses from the group at Mercy College were mixed. Most had been to polling places with their parents. One was discomfited describing the process as 'formal and proper'. Another was more negative describing it as 'a bit scary, being pushed around'. Others described the process as being boring because they had been made to wait in the car.

At Crowfield Agricultural College most students had been to polling booths with their parents and most made the observation that adults did not behave all that responsibly at the booths. One mentioned a sibling who voted informally.

At Central Districts High School most had been to booths. Responses from this school were largely positive. Samantha said it "wasn't scary", Jon-Paul said it was "cool" and Sean said that he thought "election time is a great time because the whole way there and for the next few days I get to hear about all the different policies and why you should vote for this person and not for this person".

Others recounted memories of long lines and waits. For some voting looked hard and complicated. For others it seemed serious, formal and daunting. Sometimes voting was perceived as intimidating. One aspect highlighted by respondents was the pamphleteers at the door to polling places. Participants recalled (being at child-height) and walking past these whilst parents were given 'how to vote' pamphlets. Many recounted this as a scary or unpleasant experience. Participants also recounted other events, such as where family members didn't vote, or voted informally.

Conversely there were participants for whom attending a polling place was an enjoyable experience, and even one that they recalled learning from. Some said that it was something they would like to do one day. The experience even received a 'cool' from one participant and another recalled how he had learnt from it by listening to parents' views on various candidates before and after the election. This, however, was a minority view.

6.2: Awareness of Parental Talk about Voting

We also asked participants specifically about what they had learnt through discussing the process of voting with anyone. We asked whether they had spoken with anyone about what it was like to go to a polling booth and vote on polling day. Parents were a source suggested as prompt. We were keen to find out both what factual information had been transmitted from parents to participants about voting and also what they had learnt from parental reactions and responses to voting. We also asked participants whether the information they had received, or the parental reactions they had observed, had influenced their own views in any way.

We found first that it was uncommon for participants to report talking to anyone other than parents about the experience of voting. From time to time older siblings were mentioned, but the primary discussants were parents. Participants, in fact, often referred to parents unprompted. We also found it was common for interviewees to ask researchers to explain what they meant by 'discussed' in terms of discussing the process of voting. Many said that they had talked about voting with their parents, but that they did not consider the informal nature of this conversation to merit the term 'discussion'. In other words conversation about voting tended to be informal rather than formal.

Responses to this question are outlined in Exhibit 13 below. Participants tended not to report that they learned any of the mechanics of voting as a result of conversations with their parents. Instead they described such conversations as being mostly about parental feelings toward voting. A minority reported their parents as being 'enthusiastic' about voting. The majority view, however, was that parents regarded voting negatively. Parents highlighted long queues and unwieldy ballot papers, and reported generally that voting was 'boring' or 'annoying'. In some cases parents were depicted as being much more unenthusiastic, describing voting as a waste or their hatred of the politicians they had to vote for. A small number of participants described their parents as relating to them the ways that they subverted the compulsion to vote. Parents who talked about 'refusing' to vote were described, as were parents who told participants that they donkey voted or put blank papers in the ballot box.

We also asked participants whether they considered parental views had affected attitudes towards enrolling to vote and voting. In Section 5 we noted a tendency of participants to want to learn actively about politics and to consider a range of sources, including parental views. We discovered, however, that when attitudes towards the practice of voting were discussed that interviewees were less inclined to challenge the views of parents. Although many said that they would 'make up their own minds', many more reported feeling influenced by what they had heard from their parents. For the purposes of clarity responses to this question have been combined with those from the previous question and are included in Exhibit 13.

Exhibit 13: Parents' Views of Voting and Participants' Responses

Many of the participants at St Anthony's College had visited a polling booth with parents at some time. Some said that their parents' enthusiasm for voting had encouraged their interest in the process but others indicated that parental negativity had affected their attitude. Jenaya opposed her father's negativity saying "My father refuses to vote because he doesn't believe the state should make someone vote…. I respect his choice but I don't agree with him".

Students at Johnson Catholic College said that they had discussed the process of voting with their parents but said that most parents had not given factual information. Instead they had described the process negatively as "tedious", "a chore", or complained about long lines and unwieldy papers. Students at this school said that despite this negative input they wished to make their own minds up about voting.

At Crowfield Agricultural College one participant said that her parents considered it a drag having to vote.

At Leighton College a student said that the importance attributed to voting is often learnt from parents. In his case he reported that his say "ewwww we have to go and vote and there will be all these long lines, rather than talking about the importance of it they just complain about it". Another student agreed saying that his parents saw it as a hassle and that this was how he saw it too.

At Wickham College Terri said that her parents had said that voting was "a bit of a waste".

Susie from St Luke's Catholic College said, "dad just said he donkey votes. He doesn't really care about what the outcome is – he just does it because he has to do it".

A girl from Our lady of Lourdes said "I hear my parents complaining about how they have to give up their Saturday mornings, so the way I'm thinking is that its just going to be a pain".

A male student at Crowfield Agricultural College said, his parents' negative attitude towards voting had influenced him and made him feel "it's a big waste of time".

At Frenchtown we encountered one of the few participants who stated they were simply not intending to vote. This participant had parents who were "quite annoyed that they actually have to go down and vote" and said he would not put his name on the electoral roll if he didn't have to.

Students at St Margaret's Catholic College had discussed voting with their parents. In one case a student reported that told her how you go "to a place to vote, but you walk out and don't actually do it". According to this student many of her family members handed in blank papers at polling booths. Another student said she heard "about 50/50" percent of positive and negative information. Another said she "hated" many politicians because she had heard her father make negative comments about them. Most of the girls in this group said that they thought their parents' comments had influenced their own views.

Key Points

  1. Few participants found out factual information about the process of voting from parents, though they appreciated such information when it was provided in a clear and useful form.
  2. Where parents had described voting negatively, or as a confusing process, participants indicated they tended to be put off voting.
  3. Resource issues may again be raised where participants have not had the opportunity to attend polling booths with parents due to parental ineligibility to vote.
  4. Most participants regarded attending polling booths negatively, describing it as boring, daunting or intimidating.
  5. Participants were more likely to talk to parents than anyone else about the process of voting.
  6. Communication between parents and participants was likely to be informal rather than formal. It tended to be based around parental emotional responses to voting.
  7. Participants reported that parents usually regarded voting negatively, as a chore and a waste of time.
  8. Participants were of mixed opinions when asked whether they agreed with parents' political views. Some said they would challenge parental views but the majority view was agreement with parents.
  9. There is thus a difference between the active way that participants tended to learn about politics and the passive way they tended to learn about voting.