This week is Welcome to Your Vote Week, a campaign by the Electoral Commission to spark campaigners across the UK to speak to students in schools and raise young people’s political awareness.
Amidst a global democratic deficit, public trust in politicians is at an all-time low, and voter turnout statistics reflect this. The number of Welsh residents that voted at the 2021 Senedd election was only 46.8%. Although this was the highest turnout of a Senedd election, it missed the 50% target that many hoped for.
In a bid to engage the public in politics from a young age, the Senedd voted to extend the voting age in Wales to 16 and 17 year olds, following Scotland where the franchise was extended for the referendum on independence back in 2014. One of the aims of this was to increase awareness through secondary school education to improve the political knowledge of all future voters.
This was first implemented in the 2021 election of the Senedd. However, while we lack data on exactly how many 16 and 17 year olds turned out to vote, roughly 46% of 16-17 year olds registered to vote – approximately 30,000 out of an estimated 65,000 – for the Senedd elections. Nottingham Trent University conducted extensive research into why this was the case and how to engage more young people in the future, providing several recommendations including:
- Ensure all schools and colleges have dedicated time and space for political education and benefit from a systematic rollout of voter engagement.
- Remove practical barriers for young people to turn out and vote, such as classes and assessments.
- Make a long-term investment into the political engagement of young people through mandated political education and creating spaces to express political opinions in schools and colleges.
In an ERS Cymru Report published in 2018, we called for several changes to increase young people’s engagement with democracy. We recommended statutory political education lessons that explain democracy, political parties, institutions and campaigning; an online resource for people to find out about candidates standing in elections and more digestible manifestos; a national mock election for young people to be held at the same time as Senedd elections.
The theme of Welcome to Your Vote Week is ‘Our Democracy’ and the aim is to show young people the relevance of politics and the impacts of democracy on their day-to-day lives. The Electoral Commission has created a variety of online resources targeted at 14-18 year olds who want to find out more about their democratic right to vote and resources for educators who want support to teach democracy impartially.
There are also positive signs from Welsh Government around improving democratic education and voter information. Their recent White Paper on Electoral Administration and Reform included proposals to improve political education in schools and establish a new platform where information could be provided to voters. Jeremy Miles MS – Minister for Education and the Welsh Language – has announced several grants to further political awareness of young people, one of which is the democratic engagement grant.
With the new nationwide Curriculum for Wales being rolled out currently, there is no better time for democratic education to be interwoven into every student’s core education. We have the opportunity to build on the turnout from the 2021 Senedd elections and encourage first-time voter participation by providing political education in schools, reassuring young people that their voices can and should be heard.
This article was written by Tamar Knight, who has been on work placement with ERS Cymru