Maria Hassan: Young people are politically engaged but disillusioned by elections

British Prime Minister Prime Minister Rishi Sunak visiting the Titanic Quarter in Belfast last month. File photo by Jonathan Porter, Press Eye

British Prime Minister Prime Minister Rishi Sunak visiting the Titanic Quarter in Belfast last month. File photo by Jonathan Porter, Press Eye

AS school leavers sit their A-Levels and university students submit their final assignments, the summer election is fast approaching.

This year, 40,000 young people in Northern Ireland will be eligible to cast their vote for the first time.

A Electoral Commission report from last year highlighted that fewer young people registered to vote in the last Assembly election than any other age group.

Less than half of 18-19 year olds were on the electoral register, compared to 95% of over-65s.

Between 2012 and 2022, the percentage of registered attainers (prospective first-time voters) fell by 54%.

The commission said: “There are lots of factors which affect whether someone is registered to vote - from age to how long someone has lived in their home.”

“Young people, students and those who have recently moved are the least likely groups to be registered.

“Registering just isn’t on the top of peoples’ to do list when they’ve just moved house or started their student life.”

Some young adults may have forgotten to mark the registration deadline on their exam timetable, or missed the white card in the post as they said farewell to their student digs.

Another driving force for low participation might be electoral apathy, motivated by the lack of attention and action from politicians on the matters affecting their lives.

The Northern Ireland Youth Forum has said young people feel “their voices are lost within systems” and they are “overlooked and undervalued in the political decision-making process”.

Electoral politics is a numbers game. Political parties and their policies tend to favour the age demographics most likely to vote.

But declining levels of youth electoral engagement reflect a worrying sense of mistrust and dissatisfaction with democracy.

It is hardly surprising that young people are disillusioned and disenfranchised given that Stormont has been inactive for many of their formative years.

For Northern Ireland’s ‘peace babies’, the Good Friday Agreement was supposed to usher in a new era of political stability and economic prosperity.

Instead, they have had to contend with lockdowns, declining mental health, a rapidly failing healthcare system, youth service cuts and the vanishing prospect of homeownership

Young people may be dissatisfied with electoral politics but this does not mean they are politically disengaged.

It is evident that young people feel strongly about peace, the environment and social issues.

When it comes to organising, petitioning, and issue-sharing online, youth engagement is high.

Most recently, young people have been among the most vocal in Gaza protests, staging campus sit-ins like their American counterparts.

But that same passion is not extending to the polls. Perhaps young people are frustrated by politicians' stance, or lack thereof, on the issues they care about.

Maria Hassan

Maria Hassan

Young people are finding other ways to use their voice and youth political participation has become more global, multifaceted and complex in the internet age.

Marking a ballot paper may seem like a slower and more passive path to change but by not voting, younger demographics risk throwing their future into further uncertainty.

The youth vote matters not least because democracy cannot function properly if participation is disproportionate.

This election season, politicians must better engage with young people and young people must better engage with the system.

Together they hold the potential to strengthen our democracy and create the better, fairer society they were promised for the next generation.

Maria Hassan is a freelance journalist @MariaSassan

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