How people elect parliaments
Are the young going to vote in large numbers and change the outcome of the UK elections?
In 2015 only 43% of UK voters aged 18-24 turned out to vote.
Since young people are strikingly correlated with voting for Labour and other non-Conservative parties, their disproportional absence is a significant political issue.
But despite seeming to be a key question for tomorrow’s election, no-one seems to know how many of the nation’s young will vote.
The debate over increased voter participation unfolds in two steps: are young people getting registered in greater numbers, and if they are registered, will they then turn out in greater numbers.
Britain has been undergoing a bureaucratic revolution in its voter registration system. New legislation in 2013 reorganized the way British people get registered, and introduced new administrative practices to boost the accuracy of the rolls.
Previously, the ‘head’ of each household was responsible for ensuring that everyone at a home was on the rolls. After 2013 it became an individual responsibility. In the short term, this may have led to a decline in registrations, especially amongst younger and more mobile people.
But through 2015 and 2016 the implementation of the new system gathered speed, leading to a comprehensive ‘canvas’ of the entire nation by local officials, literally knocking on doors and searching for potential voter.
The electoral register is actually dozens of separate registers maintained by local government officials (except in Northern Ireland, where it is maintained as a single register). The local officials later have the task of ensuring that the data is sorted to make voting rolls for each geographical constituency when elections are called.
The national UK Electoral Commission aggregates and publishes this data, although detailed up-to-date data by constituency for tomorrow’s election has yet to be published. (The election night returns should reveal each constituency’s registration numbers.)
Regular (some might say too-regular) electoral events in recent years will have helped boost rolls, by causing surges in new enrolments and roll updates.
There was a national election in 2015, elections for the Scotland, Wales and London assemblies in 2016 and for Northern Ireland in 2017, a Scottish referendum in 2o14, the Brexit national referendum in 2016, and local government elections around the nation in both 2016 and early 2017.
Media sensation ‘Brenda from Bristol’ no doubt spoke for the nation’s electoral fatigue when she cried out “Oh, no! What’s she gone and done that for?” on hearing the news that the Prime Minister had called the early election.
In any case, by the completion of the official canvasses in late 2016 the British electoral register for parliamentary elections stood at 45.7 million voters. That’s actually slightly less than the 46.2 million registrations at the 2015 election, which probably means that out-of-date data was cleaned out of the register during the canvas.
But the rolls seem to have significantly expanded since December. The Electoral Commission handles online applications, and they report that by the deadline for register changes on May 22, an extraordinary 4.8 million applications had been received since the 1 December statistics were published.
Almost all the changes happened after the election was called on 18 April. Over 600,000 applications came in on the final day.
Many commentators noted the age-profile breakdown of the register change applications showed that the last-day registration surge had a strikingly high rate of young people applying.
However there is reason for caution. The Commission application data does not seem to distinguish between wholly new enrolments and applications to change details – most likely being changes of residential address.
Prominent political scientists John Curtice estimates that only around 1.1 million new enrolments are involved.
It’s also unsurprising that a disproportionate number of new enrollments will come from young people; older voters who haven’t changes address don’t need to make applications.
The modern roll system is also now registering people from age 17, not 18. Such young people, known as ‘attainers’, are eligible to vote if they turn 18 on election day or earlier.
Around half of the 17-year old attainers who were on the registers on 1 December 2016 will obviously turn 18 by 8 June 2017. If any of them are among the flood of new online applicants, they are really only confirming their enrolment, not creating a new entry.
All up, the published data does not really help settle the question of whether there is a surge of young people voting in 2017.
Above all, there is no useful data by constituency to assist in pre-election predictions of impacts on the marginal seats. The background analysis that safer Labour seats tend to have demographic profiles with more younger people, and the marginal constituencies relatively less so, also suggests caution in estimating a major youth impact on the election outcome.
Clearly many left-of-centre political parties, advocacy groups and celebrities have been encouraging young people to register and to vote, and there specific policy motivators in the Labour manifesto (and others) to attract young voters.
Whether it makes a difference to the 2017 election result, these efforts will nonetheless have helped increase political participation in Britain.
Since voters have a tendency to stick with the partisanship they adopted in their first election, there may also be an advantage into the future from any 2017 surge of youth engagement.
There will, no doubt, be extensive statistical analysis of the youth engagement issue after the dust of the election settles.
UK election previews – Post #2 of 6