Youth Electoral Study (YES) - Report 3: 1. The YES Project

Updated: 20 January 2011

1. The YES Project

Youth participation in the electoral process is of great concern in many Western democracies today. For some years we have known that young people are less likely to enrol to vote than older groups. This national study is attempting to uncover the reasons why so many young people today are not enrolled and also look at what motivates Australia's young people to participate in different ways as 'active citizens'.

The Chief Investigators for the project are A/Professor Murray Print (Centre for Research & Teaching in Civics, University of Sydney) and Dr. Larry Saha (Reader in Sociology, ANU), together with Dr Kathy Edwards as Senior Research Associate. The Partner Investigator is Brien Hallett (Assistant Commissioner, Communications, AEC). The Steering Committee is composed of the following: Brien Hallett , Andrew Moyes (Assistant Commissioner, AEC), David Farrell (NSW/AEC), A/Prof Murray Print, Dr. Larry Saha and Dr. Kathy Edwards.

1.1 Project Objectives

The principal purpose of the project is to determine why many young people do not register on the Australian electoral roll. According to the Australian Electoral Commission, whereas 95% of the eligible voting age population is enrolled to vote, this figure drops to around 80% for young Australians between 18–25 [1]. This means that around one fifth of this age group do not perform the duty of voting or partake of the right to vote.

A more fundamental purpose is to investigate the impact of electorally disengaged youth on Australian democracy. Democracies are nurtured and legitimised by participatory citizens. Where groups of citizens do not participate this has implications for the effectiveness and future of the Australian democratic political system. Of equal concern is that where individuals do not enrol and vote they disenfranchise themselves. Where one social group, defined in this case by age, is less likely to enrol and vote than other age cohorts, it is also possible that our democracy is not reflective of the views of one portion of the Australian population.

Thus the project is investigating the underlying characteristics of those who do and do not register to vote when they become eligible at age 17, and is focusing on the links between pro-voting behaviour and family, school and other social and psychological variables. The meaning of voting and other forms of active citizenship by Australian youth is being examined. Various current intervention strategies to improve registration will be analysed and new strategies will be proposed and developed.

Like most studies that examine the political participation of young people YES assumes a normative framework. This is established within different literatures drawn upon in the project. These include those taking psephological, behavioural science, political psychology, political sociology, and civics education backgrounds. For a discussion of this normative framework refer to Nie, Junn and Stehlik Barry (1996).

To this end YES presupposes that democracy is a valuable institution worth preserving and enhancing. It examines the behaviour of young people within this democratic framework with particular reference to aspects of political behaviour that pertain to democratic values and norms. We consider it desirable that citizens value democratic principles and practices as well as participate in Australia's democracy. We recognize that there are a variety of behaviours considered to positively reinforce democratic norms. These include some forms of protest, critical evaluations of governments, membership of political parties and other forms of participation. Voting, however, we contend, is distinctive. Although not the only form of political participation, it is a necessary one within democracies.

1.2 Project Methodology

Because this report relies heavily on data gained from our focus-group studies with high school students, it is pertinent to explain our methodology.

Sixteen Electoral Divisions

The sixteen disparate Commonwealth Electoral Divisions across Australia in which we have carried out research for YES include ones in rural and remote areas, major regional centres, inner-city and outer-suburban areas. These sixteen divisions function as individual case studies allowing us to study young people from very different backgrounds. YES includes young people from the full range of geographical areas, socio-economic backgrounds and ethnicities found in Australia. In terms of the school participants discussed here we aimed to reflect the demographic characteristics of our divisions as closely as possible. Across our divisions we selected a range of schools from very affluent private colleges and selective government high schools to much poorer public and private schools. We interviewed students in government schools, including comprehensive, selective and specialist schools, in the Catholic system and in a range of independent schools. Some of our schools were single sex, but most were co-educational. A total of 476 students from 55 schools participated in this phase of the study.

The young people whose views are discussed here were between 15 and 18 years of age when they were interviewed and they were in their final two years of secondary education. We interviewed these students first in 2003 when they were in Year 11 and again in 2004 when they were in Year 12. The disparity in the age range of participants is a result of the Australian education system where school entry and completion ages differ slightly between different states and territories.

Focus Group Interviews

Researchers considered it important to enable young people to discuss their attitudes and opinions with a full and free voice. It was decided that the best way to achieve this was through the use focus groups. By allowing participants the opportunity to interact and respond to others this methodology allowed us to approach the subject of politics in a manner less threatening than if we had interviewed participants individually. In this way it also assisted us in circumventing the power relationship between older researchers possessive of the 'power of knowledge' about politics and younger students who were being asked for what were frequently quite nascent opinions. Further it allowed for texture, that is, for a multiplicity of views within a group and also for us to observe interactions with peers and reasoning processes. Where participants called on others to justify and explain their views we were also able to access reasoning processes in a non-confrontational way.

The methodology followed was that developed by Kreuger (1988) and the research staff was asked to read selections from this text before being briefed on the methodology more extensively. Our discussions utilized semi-structured questions, were audio-taped, and were conducted with groups consisting of between 5 and 8 students. Before interviewing commenced individual researchers assured participants that any information they gave would be treated confidentially and that their anonymity would be preserved. Post interview our tapes were analysed using an analysis sheet that encapsulated the major themes of the interview questions. In performing content analysis care was taken to include both majority and dissenting viewpoints. Particular trends and patterns were also highlighted as were discussions of topics that may indicate specificity related to factors such as individual schools or areas. Analyses were in turn mapped onto matrices to allow cross-comparison of schools and divisions.

The National Survey

Data gained from our 2004 questionnaire survey also contribute to this report. This survey was designed to be a benchmarking instrument measuring various aspects of young people's attitudes about politics, voting and civic knowledge. In addition it asked questions about democratic attitudes, tolerance and information sources regarding politics. In total 4855 senior secondary school students from 153 schools across Australia, were drawn randomly from an inclusive national list, participated in the survey, with a response rate of 74%.

Data gained from each methodology are clearly delineated in this report. Pseudonyms are used where specific divisions, schools and individual participants are referred to.

  1. These data were obtained from the Australian Electoral Commission and is the best that current methods of modelling of enrolment data can provide. The figures quoted, however, are approximate only and may be subject to future revision.