Turnout: why didn’t young adults vote in the first #socialmediaelection?

29th May, 2015

Polling has been in short supply since the exit poll on May 7th provided the first indication that our expectations for the outcome – beaten into shape by the daily polling throughout the previous month – would have to be recalibrated.

Given these recent failures, the political and psephological commentariat, as well as the wider public, are perhaps not at their most receptive to new polling data. This helps explain why crucial new data released by Ipsos Mori in the past week has had such little traction. This poll provides the first estimate of who people voted for – and how many of them actually voted.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, younger people – those aged both 18-24 and 25-34 – are much less likely to have voted than older people, but it is the scale of the difference which is most intriguing.

Ipsos estimates that just 43% of 18-24s voted, and only 54% of 25-34s voted.  It is particularly disheartening to see how many of this generation – my generation – didn’t vote, and presents a poor comparison to the 78% of over 65s who made it to the polling stations. This gap is growing, with a slight decline in the proportion of younger voters since 2010 (driven by a 6% decrease in the proportion of young men voting) and a rise in the number of older voters.  In the longer term, the trend is even more pronounced – the 35% gap between turnout amongst the youngest and oldest in 2015 is almost double the 18% gap in 1970.

This polarisation has a number of impacts. Polling companies will be given pause to consider the likely impact on their future samples and weighting, and the dominance of older people in the polling stations cannot help but influence any political party whose thoughts are turning to their policies or manifestos ahead of the next election in 2020.

Though there are many interesting issues raised by these figures with regards to why young people aren’t voting – cynicism, trust, or apathy for example – it is difficult to discuss the impact of the young on wider society without addressing their relationship with social media. This was – perhaps disingenuously, given the same thing was said of 2010 – widely heralded as the first social media election, where the power of traditional media channels would start to wane when met by the influence of an unstoppable wave of tweets, hashtags, likes and recommendations. This wave materialised, and undoubtedly reached many young people and potential first time voters – but it had apparently no power to drag them to the polling booths to vote.

The scope of this issue can be broadened to a wider one about the extent to which people – especially younger people – feel they have a true choice in politics. But this parliament, and the recent election campaign, saw the rise to prominence of a range of alternatives to the traditional Westminster set: with the Greens, UKIP and the Welsh and Scottish national parties just a few. Furthermore, these are exactly the problems that digital engagement was meant to address – giving a voice and access to the parties and causes that struggle to be heard in the confines of traditional media.

The issue of low turnout amongst young adults is not one confined to this recent election.  Voting is habitual, and those who fail to vote at the first opportunity they have are unlikely to pick up the habit in future elections. The growing extent of disengagement has led to calls from all corners of the political spectrum to modify the way elections are conducted – with Professor Sarah Birch and IPPR calling for the introduction of compulsory measures.

Whilst social media and digital engagement are sure to play an increasing role in UK politics, the currency of democracy remains votes and seats rather than likes and retweets.