News Analysis: The change in student voting patterns

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With a General Election imminent, Alanna O’Shea examines how Irish students can make their voices heard.  


As the build-up to the 2016 general election cycle continues, there are still questions about how large a role young voters and students will play. Historically, the turnout among young people for elections in Ireland is amongst the lowest in Europe. However, in last year’s marriage referendum many young people not only cast their votes for the first time, but became active in their first political campaign.

Recent news coming out of Great Britain after their 2015 general election shows the importance of young people making themselves heard at the polling booth. Reforms of the UK’s electoral system, brought in by the Conservative Party Government, have meant that hundreds of thousands of students were recently struck from the UK’s electoral register. A new individual electoral registration system brought in in 2015 prevented universities from block registering students in their halls of residence. According to figures released by the UK Labour Party, some 800,000 people have fallen off the register, with university towns losing sizeable percentages of their voters.

“This change makes it more difficult for thousands of young people to vote and is a significant step backwards, given that young people are already underrepresented in the voting process”

The Conservative party says that this is a method of ensuring that voting is as fraud-free as possible.  Labour politicians see this as an effort by the Conservative party to “rig the system“ by removing those who are unlikely to vote for them from the register (they say that as well as students, ethnic minority groups and lower income urban dwellers will be disproportionately affected). Either way, this new electoral register has disenfranchised a large population of students.

This change makes it more difficult for thousands of young people to vote and is a significant step backwards, given that young people are already underrepresented in the voting process. In the British general election last year, there was a very high turnout among people over 65 years of age, which was instrumental in the Conservative Party being re-elected with a majority in parliament.

Due to their strong support in older voters, there has been no reason for the Conservatives to listen to their younger constituents. The Conservative budget that was put in place at the end of last year was disastrous for young people and students, with maintenance grants for poorer third-level students being scrapped. There was a cut to housing benefits for the under 25s. Meanwhile, there was tax relief for pensioners earning over £150,000 a year. So what can students do to ensure that the same thing doesn’t happen here?

Ireland’s young people have previously had a very low election turnout. One study found that in the last general election the number of 18-25 year olds voting was 20 per cent lower than the national average. However, one big event may have influenced young people since the last election: the marriage referendum, which got many students excited about politics for the first time. The high voter turn-out among the younger generation ensured the highest turnout for a referendum in Ireland ever.

Kevin Donoghue, head of the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), believes students are more engaged in the political process since last May. “After the marriage referendum, we had a voter registration drive in October where we registered 10,000 people in one day,” he said. Donoghue also pointed out that on the day the election was called there were queues of third-level students outside Garda stations waiting register to vote.

“We registered 60 people in 60 minutes one day in DIT,” he said. “Everyone’s very engaged, it’s actually now hard to find people that aren’t registered to vote.”

So, the stereotype of the cynical student has been thoroughly disproven and it is now clear that this generation of students are politically engaged about issues they care about. According to Donoghue, while third-level fees are a huge factor in deciding student votes, issues such as repealing the eighth amendment and finding graduate positions are also important to them.

However, it takes two to do this general election tango: are the politicians listening to the students’ requests? The USI released its own general election manifesto to represent the interest of students.  Donoghue says that many of their requests have been incorporated into the main parties’ election manifestos.

“Everyone’s very engaged, it’s actually now hard to find people that aren’t registered to vote.”

For those just starting out in the political process and unsure what candidate best represents their interest, Donoghue points to Smartvote.ie as a good place to start. By answering 30 questions on various political issues, this is a website where you can check which candidate in your constituency most closely aligns with your viewpoints. Donoghue points to new technology such as this as a factor in the next election: “Students are not only more engaged and more likely to vote than they were in the past, but they are also better informed.”

It remains to be seen whether this new politicially active and informed young electorate will make their voices heard on the 26th of February.

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