Closing the registration generation gap

Electoral Reform Society,

Posted on the 6th June 2017

Young voters are in the spotlight this election. Significant gaps in current polling have been explained by differences in how pollsters are measuring youth turnout. Younger electors are also behind the surge in electoral registration. Some 70% of people registering to vote since the General Election was announced have been under 35. Younger electors it would seem, potentially hold the keys to this election.

But to have any impact, those saying they are going to vote a particular way need to turn out to do so and historically, older generations tend to be more steadfast when it comes to marking a cross on their ballot. The difference in turnout (of the eligible electorate) between 21-35 years olds and 66-80 year olds grew to 28 percentage points at the last election. In 1992 it was less than 10. Differences in turnout between generations are becoming more marked and there were clear turnout generational gaps in both the Scottish and EU referendums despite high overall turnout.

This growing generational gap will be difficult to reverse. Voting is a habit to acquire: those who vote at the first chance are more likely to vote for the rest of their lives so missing out on your first voting opportunity can imbed non-voting for future elections.

The surge in younger electors registering to vote this election is welcome news, particularly as the number of ‘attainers’ (that’s 16 and 17 year olds) on the electoral register has declined. But younger voters still face a number of challenges in getting registered in the first place. Changes to electoral registration mean that household and university block registration no longer exist, this means first-time voters need to take responsibility for getting on the register themselves. And young voters are likely to need to register more frequently as they are more likely to be in privately rented accommodation and to move home more often.

A generational gap in turnout has the potential to imbed generational inequality in the future but there are simple ways of lowering the barriers to registration helping to close that gap. Registering to vote could be made easier and more convenient by introducing ‘motor-voter’ style registration in government interactions, such as when applying for a passport or driver’s licence. The government could also consider Election Day Registration which would allow voters to turn up at the polling station, register and vote all in one go. Election Day Registration works especially well for under-registered groups such as those who have recently moved address.

Our research shows young people are just as interested in the election as older electors. They shouldn’t face unnecessary hurdles in order to turn that interest into a vote. If the generational turnout gap holds at this election, addressing it should be a priority for the next government.

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