Adrian Kavanagh, 22nd November 2010
Could a separate youth constituency improve participation/representation levels amongst the younger section of the electorate?
Currently various groups within Irish society are significantly under-represented in Irish electoral politics, the largest of which are females whose low levels of representation in Irish electoral politics at the national and local levels have been amply explored in previous posts. Other significant (in terms of population numbers) under-represented groups include the urban working class and younger voters. Various mechanisms for improving female electoral participation levels have been discussed in previous posts, including the option of introducing some form of gender quotas and other alternatives such as increasing district magnitude levels. Working class representation levels are significantly associated with low voter turnout levels in urban working class areas, and mechanisms that facilitate and mobilise improved turnout levels in such areas would appear to offer a means of helping to address this issue.
The low representation of younger age groups in electoral politics is a function of many factors, such as Irish political culture, candidate selection strategies of political parties, and lower than average youth turnout levels. Low youth turnout levels feed into the lower than average representation levels of younger age groups and in turn a limited focus on the policy issues that specifically concern such groups. The small numbers of younger political representatives and the preponderance of older (mainly 50-something/60-something) male politicians means that younger voters believe that politics does not relate to them and their interests.
What can be done? First of all, measures need to be introduced that can facilitate improve turnout levels amongst the 18-24 age category, mindful of the fact that a significant degree of low youth turnout levels is caused by accidental factors, such as registration difficulties or the day that elections are held on.
But younger, first-time, voters need to be able to vote for candidates that they can identify with, namely those from their own age cohort. I put forward here the idea that one alternative would be to have a separate, non-geographical, constituency with the electorate for such a constituency comprising all those in the 18-24 age cohort (or 16-24 age cohort if a decision is taken to also allow 16 and 17-year olds to vote). The number of candidates to be elected by such a constituency should be directly related to the proportion of the population accounted for by this age cohort; in the case of the 2006 census there were 461,147 people (or 10.88% of the total population in this age cohort) meaning that 10.88% of the total number of TDs in Dail Eireann (i.e. 18) should be allocated to this youth constituency.
The candidates for such a constituency should be drawn from the 18-24 age cohort also. This would allow those in the youth and ogra sections of political parties, as well as other politically active young people, the prospect of getting directly involved in national electoral politics at an early age. It would also ensure an injection of fresh new faces and (hopefully!) fresh ideas into Dail Eireann, which can be no bad thing given the tendency there towards stasis and the tendency for incumbents to be re-elected on a regular basis. The seats for this constituency could be allocated under normal proportional representation by single transferable vote rules, but a List system approach would probably be a more effective mechanism for deciding seats for such a constituency. Such an approach, as well as allowing young first-time voters the prospect of voting for candidates of a similar age in their very first election, also would mean that their first voting decision would be not based on localist concerns but policy/national issues – a key step to eliminating an undue influence in Irish politics given that voting is a habitual act.