A growing trend shows an increase in young first time voters registering to vote but without translating to higher voter turnouts.
If political parties studied the youth demographic and ensured that their ideologies connected with young people and their dreams then they’d be able to get them to vote. Whilst the mechanisms that are used to encourage first time voters to register as voters appear to have had the desired effect in many countries, with significant numbers of young people turning up to complete voter registration formalities.
Whilst the mechanisms that have been used to encourage voter registration for first time voters such as the use of social media, art, music and drama have been effective in driving up voter registration, those mechanisms appear ineffectual in getting these newly registered voters to actually go and vote.
It is becoming clear that voter engagement models currently being used to target young people and first time voters need to be reengineered. Several factors require scrutiny in line with voter engagement targeting the youths.
Voter registration does not ideologically tax the young
One possible reason why persuading young people to register to vote could be that the act of registering to vote does not tax the young i.e requiring them to make judgment calls about political ideologies or political identity. In many African countries, political affiliation is one crucial factor that shape youths experiences. Voter registration is a process that does not require young people to commit to any party ideology, and can be framed as a civic duty that is a rite of passage for those who have just turned 18 years of age (which in many states is the legal age of majority when one is eligible to vote).
Voting requires some degree of political conviction
Most elections happen once in half a decade and in those intervening years, tens of thousands young people attain and go past the age of 18 such that by the time the next campaign season comes around, the potential first time voters are a considerable bloc to reckon with. It is not often the case that first time voters get sustained exposure to political discourses that require their input in a manner as onerous as the voting process. Campaign season may also be the worst time for first time voters to be forced to decide almost ‘on the spot’ what party campaign promises to believe. Rather than mentally exert their selves trying to figure out what party or candidate to vote for, they choose to sit it out and abscond. Political convictions are built over time, through sustained exposure to political parties and through ties with politically opinionated family members or peers. Most political parties do not see the value in voter engagement or mobilization or growing its structures throughout the electoral cycle and not just towards elections. As a result they miss out on opportunities to grow the political convictions of voters who come of age in between elections.
Voter apathy stemming negative perceptions of elections
First time voters and other youths are also very susceptible to the view that elections do not change anything and thus voting is pointless. The logic goes thus, ‘if voting really works then how come people have been voting all these years but nothing has
changed’. A lack of faith in the transformative potential of elections has led to a lack of appetite to vote, especially given that elections have become hollow rituals that do not lead to renewed leadership. Political parties lack engagement strategies that are not tied to election events and this means they miss an opportunity to engage and win over potential first time voters. The fact that political parties wait for election campaigns to appear on the horizon before they focus on engaging young voters means their overtures are tend to be too little too late.
Hostile political engagements deter the youths
Some analysts have argued that the perverse presence of partisan politics and its impact in Africa’s youths makes political affiliation an important source of identity for some young people. Whether young people are active or passive members of political parties has the potential to shape their experiences in, and access to political, economic and social spaces. It is not unusual to find youths in the hierarchy of ruling parties can engage in unlawful acts and get away with it because their political affiliation affords them immunity whilst youths who may belong to opposition parties can be victims of state-sponsored harassment. The hostile nature of politics acts as a deterrence to potential first time voters to choose political affiliation or participate in the voting process.
Youths are often peripheral to the political party agenda and they are used for violence; not afforded opportunities to be part of decision-making and as a result political parties focus on the priorities of the older generations who are at the helm. The failure by political parties to communicate with young people and to craft a youth-centered agenda means they cannot engage with first time voters meaningfully or sway them to go and vote.