This report addresses the first phase of the YES research. It is investigating why so many young Australians do not enroll and vote in elections. Given that voting is a minimal contribution to democratic society, why are so many youth disengaged from Australia's democratic system? And what are the longer term implications of non-enrolment and a less engaged youth cohort?
As a first phase in this research we conducted a national survey of Year 12 students and many group discussions with students and non-students across the country. At this time we report the following major findings.
Most young people will register on the electoral roll, mostly because they believe it is the right thing to do. However, few were aware that they could enroll at 17 years.
Females were more likely to enrol both in intention and actual behaviour, and more likely to say they will vote than males. In addition, more females than males say they would vote if it was not compulsory. But only a half of all those surveyed would vote if it was not compulsory.
About half the students feel they lack the knowledge to understand the issues, the political parties, to make a decision about voting, and in general to vote. Given that most of the students in our study could enrol and many could vote, this insecurity with voting is problematic. This situation raises major questions about the role of formal education in preparing young people to become active citizens.
While parents are the most important source of information about voting and political matters, television and newspapers are also important as are teachers. Other sources, including the internet, are considered unimportant. This offers opportunities for schools and media to perform a more prominent role in preparing Australia's youth to be engaged citizens.
While most students believe that voting is important, the majority also think voting is boring, a hassle and a waste of a Saturday. Clearly for these students the link between a citizen's right and duty to vote is not powerful.
And voting is not seen as part of transition to adulthood by students. Turning eighteen, attending 'schoolies', obtaining a drivers license and leaving school are all far more important rites of passage.
Despite this situation, there were some incentives that would attract a first vote. Students saw a tax break or the use of promotional rock concerts as the most effective incentives to get young people to enroll and vote. However there was some support for the notion that no incentives are needed, since voting is a responsibility that comes with citizenship.
A major disincentive to participate in Australia's democracy, particularly through voting, is the lack of trust in political leaders. Young people widely characterized politicians as liars and promise-breakers. Only half agreed that parliamentarians could be trusted to do what is right for the country, while barely a quarter agreed that parliamentarians are honest.
Youth are typically stereotyped as politically apathetic. That is not what we found. They were interested in political issues, what to them were real issues, though not political parties and politicians. The need and challenge is to find meaningful ways to engage young people more constructively so they want to participate more directly in voting and to sustain Australian democracy.
The second report in this series on youth voting and participation will be available in 2005