Could a separate youth constituency improve participation/representation levels?

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.

9 thoughts on “Could a separate youth constituency improve participation/representation levels?

  1. The following statement is by Adrian Kavanagh “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”. I would be very interested to learn if Mr. Kavanagh has any evidence to support what he says. I doubt it.

    What we do not need is a further breakdown in political representation by age. What we need is a breakdown by quality. Younger people have a lower propensity to vote not because the candidates are older, it is because the candidates are useless. They are useless because talented people are precluded from the process. Mediocre people who have plenty time on their hands – i.e. do not work too hard, are mobile, to attend all those funerals, are patient enough to sit in on all those meetings, organised enough to keep a good database and cute en ough to shift hte blame for nonperformance in clientelist task to officials but to claim credit for when the officials do the job they were supposed to in the first place, played sport… that will do it…

  2. @Lorcan

    Actually, there is a significant body of international research which suggests that the predominance of white, middle-class, middle-aged to older men in parliaments and other decision-making realms has had negative consequences for political participation and representation. A distinct lack of the “symbolic” or “descriptive” representation of salient groups in society (such as the youth, women, blacks, the working class, disabled people, etc) has meant that these people often feel excluded from the political process. They lack role models that mirror themselves and often feel that politics isn’t for them, which leads to a vicious circle in which they are less likely to vote, participate in grassroots politics and run for election. Voting is a habitual act and the youth need to be encouraged and mobilized to do so, not feel as if the Dáil ignores them and their interests. While I agree that the quality of out representatives is of the utmost importance and that we should certainly strive for this from now on, the status quo of Irish politics strongly suggests that certain groups are being or feeling kept out in ways that others are not. Adrian’s suggestion is interesting and one potential way of addressing this problem for young people.

  3. Based on the CSO’s research into this (QNHS 2003) of those who didn’t vote in 2002, there isn’t a significantly higher lack of interest (c.25% amongst those 18 to 25 against 20% for the over population) and actually lower levels of disillusionment (c.5% for under 25s against 10% for all age groups). Practical reasons such as not being registered or being away were the main drivers of low turnout amongst young voters.

    • @John
      But this can be caused by political decisions. For instance the 2007 elections were held in the middle of 3rd level exams.

  4. But reasons for being away etc. can be caused by political decisions. For instance the 2007 election was held during college exams. This made it impossible for some young people to vote and also could feed the disillusionment they feel towards politics. Thus perhaps deterring them from voting in the future

  5. Interesting perspectives from all the different commentators here. I agree with Lorcan that a mechanism bringing in younger Dail representatives need not necessarily improve the quality of Dail representatives, though I frankly believe that it would. My proposal would at least create a mechanism that would bring in new people into politics on a regular basis – and younger people with fresh ideas and a different way of looking on the world (I am always impressed by the type of issues that the younger Dublin inner city Labour councillors raise at council meetings) who would be elected in on a different basis to those of “normal” political representatives (i.e. the hard constituency slog). I wouldn’t term all politicians as useless – some probably are, some were very good representatives in the past but have now become tired and uninspired, some are quite good and some are pretty good but are precluded from making a serious impact on politics because they are opposition or backbench deputies.

  6. Good reference by John to the CSO study on youth turnout in 2002, suggesting that alienation is not always the reason behind low turnout for this group, but other accidental factors have a role to play also. This ties in with Mark’s cogent point about the disgraceful decision to hold the last general election on a Thursday in May – a time when thousands of 18-24 year olds would have been in the middle of university exams – many wanting to vote but unable to do so as they couldn’t afford time to leave university to travel home to vote in the middle of their important exams. I remember that the day of the election fell on the same day as my Environmental Politics exam – students who would have been politically interested had to stay in NUI Maynooth to do this exam and others that were taking place immediately after it and there was no way they could travel home to vote. Most literature and most European countries uphold weekend voting. Why don’t we? Fear that too many young students and young workers may vote?

  7. Voting day is a political decision and one that is made by a government that is predominately male and middle-aged with vested power interests. A number of reports (including the most recent Committee on the Constitution report) have called for weekend voting and for the election to be spread out over two days, yet the status quo still prevails. I think they’re terrified of how young people will vote, but also that the Oireachtas is just terribly slow in initiating any kind of realistic reform..

  8. A number of interesting points made here and great to see engaging debate on this topic as my own acadenuc research centres on the problem of youth electoral disengagement in a comparative context.

    Just to weigh in on the discussion on a couple of points. Firstly, I think it is important to acknowledge that low youth turnout is not a distinctly Irish phenonmena – in fact there is greater youth electoral disengagement in recent elections in Britain (2001, 2005), Canada (problem since 2000), Finland (1999-2007), Poland (since 2001), Slovenia and Norway (I could go on). This observations leads me on to my second point – institutional factors and voter turnout – specifically the day the election is held. An argument that is constantly thrown out is that the youth turnout problem is a result of the day we have an election on (i.e.: weekday). While there is clear evidence to suggest that turnout in general is higher when elections are held on weekends, it does not fully explain the youth turnout gap. For example, Finland, Poland and Slovenia all hold elections on a Sunday yet the gap between youth turnout and overall turnout remains (data available on request!) The Czech Republic tends to holds its elections over two days (Friday and Saturday) and yet more young people abstain than the abstention levels of the population in general. Consequently, I argue that while there is considerable merit in advocating a change in the voting day in Ireland (in the spirit of the second Nice referendum poll which was held on a Saturday), it is doubtful whether it it will completely close the gap between the the turnout rates of the population at large and young people. It also needs to be borne in mind that weekend voting may also have it’s drawbacks. For some Saturday and Sunday are time of leisure and that young people may be too preoccupied to vote. It also should be considered that many young people work on the weekends, and not necessarily in their home towns.
    The reality is that the low electoral engagement of young people is a complex problem with many different reasons for young people failing to go to polls in sufficient numbers and it is unlikely that a change of voting day will close the gap (although it may help to some degree).

    Also I disagree with Claire McGing about politicians being fearful about the youth vote – evidence to date shows that while young people tend to vote more for newer parties, the main parties still get a sizeable chunk of their support and given the numbers of people joining Ogra Fianna Fáil and Young Fine Gael and Labour Youth this is not perhaps surprising. However, it is of course questionable whether this will continue into the future.

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