University-aged students in Australia are missing from the electoral roll in large numbers.
The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) has recently released data that suggests that 18% of 18-24 year olds are not registered to vote. The largest non-enrolled group is the youngest, with a staggering 48% of 18 year olds and nearly 24% of 19 year olds not enrolled.
This data on enrolment rates needs to be set alongside population data.
Young people are under-represented
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), in 2015 there were 140,000 more people aged over 70 than there were aged 24 and under. But AEC statistics from March 2016 reveal there are 725,340 more grey-haired voters over 70 than there are youthful voters under 24.
What these statistics show is that young people in Australia are disproportionally under-represented on the electoral roll. They are not engaging in the most fundamental of all democratic rights: voting. In doing so they are reducing their electoral leverage at a time when generational issues should be high on the political agenda.
Why this matters
This matters for two reasons.
First, young people have a lot at stake when it comes to current political decisions.
In her recent book, Generation Less: How Australia is Cheating the Young, Jennifer Rayner points out that today’s young Australians are the first generation since the Great Depression to be worse off than their parents.
When it comes to work, young people find it harder to get a foot in the door and harder to advance when they do. Rayner quotes ABS figures which reveal that the number of young people working in casualised employment has risen from 34% in 1992 to 50% in 2013. Over the same period wage growth for young people has dropped well behind that of older workers.
As Rayner shows, average incomes for people in their 20s have grown at less than half the rate of those people in their mid-50s. And with these older workers staying on in their jobs longer, the prospects of advancement are significantly curtailed as well. While this can mean flexibility for some, it more often means vulnerability, exploitation, and uncertainty.
Poorer work prospects make it doubly hard for young people to enter an increasingly unaffordable housing market. Especially given they are carrying another kind of debt, from which previous generations were exempt, and that is higher education loans.
Waiting longer to buy a first home, or not being able to afford one at all, has life long consequences. It makes harder the kind of risk taking necessary for entrepreneurship or starting a small business. And it either means being saddled with debt well into your 60s, or entering them without the financial investment that for many people home ownership represents.
This magnifies the problem fashioned by insecure work, of the generational disparity in the relative size of superannuation savings.
And then there is environmental policy – an issue in which young people have a real and long-term stake.
Jessica Rayner talks about the emergence of a “lopsided Australia where young and old live differently”.
In part this generational inequality is a consequence of global demographic, technological and economic forces that have come together at the start of the 21st century.
But these are forces that too often are exacerbated rather than mitigated by policy measures. If young people are going to build a fairer future for themselves and coming generations, argues Rayner, they are going to have to get involved.
And this leads to the second reason that the under-representation of young people on the electoral roll is a problem.
If we want a strong and representative democracy we need young people to participate in it. We need them to believe their voice matters in the future of this country and we need that voice to be heard.
Our political institutions work better when we all care about them: their health is in the hands of those who will inherit them.
Crucial role of universities
Universities have a crucial role in building a participatory democracy. One of the ways they do this is by teaching students to engage in robust and thoughtful discussion.
Every day in the classroom, be it mathematics or anthropology, university lecturers foster respectful cultures of disagreement and impart tools of argument and evidence, that teach students to be informed participants in public debate.
Beyond the classroom, students put these skills into action. On the sports field, in the university bar, and in the myriad array of clubs and societies on campus, universities provide opportunities for student participation and leadership that they will carry throughout their lives.
This civic role is one of the reasons universities have long been valued as public institutions that encourage students to be active and engaged citizens.
There are, of course, a wide variety of ways that students enact this citizenship, and many views they express in the process. But one of the ways they participate needs to be via the most fundamental of democratic processes and that is our voting system.
We need our young people to have a voice in our formal democratic processes. Not only will current political decisions have long-term consequences for their lives, but our political institutions and our society will be stronger for their participation in it.
Must enrol by 23 May
Australians have until 23 May 2016 to enrol to vote in the 2016 election.
The AEC has made this process really easy with a simple online enrolment form. All that is needed is evidence of identity, such as a driver’s licence or Australian passport number, and a residential address.
University lecturers can help to ensure this happens.
Attending university is one of the factors causing young people drop off the electoral roll. When they move out of the family home for study or work, the AEC loses track of them, and without a shared culture of participation, it can be hard to get them back.
Appeal to lecturers
Ask your students if they are enrolled to vote. Tell them about the statistics at the start of this article, and get them to check their enrolment in class. Download the infographic to show at the start of your lectures.
In doing so you will be acting in the long tradition of the academic as public intellectual: a scholar who not only contributes their expertise to public debate, but also a scholar who fosters that debate through a commitment to encouraging active participation in its processes and institutions.