The UK’s upcoming election is the closest contest in living memory.
Reversing low turnout trends, research reveals 75% of young people intend to vote, but 44% haven’t decided who to support.
This demographic has a real opportunity to make an impact on election night, if politics can reach them through digital channels.
As we know, the youngest potential voters are heavily tied to technology. But, most political parties struggle with online strategy. How should they be using technology to engage with young voters?
Improve voter registration
As a starting point, even registering to vote has become a significant barrier to youth participation. Following concern about fraud, the electoral registration system was quietly switched from Household to Individual Voter Registration (IER) last summer.
Each person must register individually upon change of address, and supply their National Insurance number.
Close to a million people have dropped off the British register since the change – and young people were hit the worst, as they move more frequently and universities can no longer act as the ‘head of the household’, registering new students collectively.
Consequently, cities with large student populations have now reported registration falls of more than 10%.
This contrasts with Australia’s efficient technical system. The government raises first-time registration by working with schools, and then tracks all registered voters, cross-referencing integrated databases when addresses change.
With a population of 7m, New South Wales can maintain a 95% accurate register through this process, carefully including the young, mobile population.
Communicate policy effectively
Faced with the complex British political system, it’s difficult for young first-time voters to know where to start. Researching and understanding each party’s stance on key issues is time-consuming and confusing. Unclear political websites only make this worse.
To fresh eyes, most parties choose to present themselves in strikingly similar ways: working towards a ‘fairer society’ with a ‘stronger economy’, for ‘all people’ under their general manifesto, but pursuing different policies in practice.
Instead, political websites must explain policy in plain language, and increase engagement by integrating a variety of content types, from lists and infographics to images and video.
They should ensure usability by testing with users of all ages and abilities, covering both party devotees and prospective voters.
The Labour Party has started taking this on board. It launched an interactive, visual ‘drag and drop’ manifesto, which invites users to prioritise their top issues for a personalised version, rather than overwhelming them with the entire document.
The Labour Party’s interactive, user-friendly manifesto could boost engagement.
Promote voter advice applications
Media coverage of the election moves fast, and assumes background knowledge on party history, policy and powerful individuals.
Another source of neutral content and advice is necessary, particularly when only 18% of young people trust mainstream media to address their values and needs.
This year, Voter Advice Applications (VAAs) are finally getting the attention they deserve. The quiz-based web applications help voters find the party that best matches their opinions across key electoral issues, from the economy to employment. But development is complex.
Applying a full user-centred design process is necessary to understand the needs of first-time (or undecided) voters and particular care must be taken to avoid bias and jargon when selecting and presenting political issues.
Already popular across Europe, VAAs are now available for British voters. The Guardian recently weighed up the value of a few apps.
My favourite is the intuitive, cross-browser design of Verto, developed by Bite the Ballot specifically for a young audience. Vote for Policies is another option, for users to understand party stance in greater depth.
Verto’s simple, interactive design will help young people explore how political parties match their opinions.
Raise engagement on social media
Social media has transformed how young people consume current affairs; nearly half find stories that interest them via these platforms, and are more likely to read news shared in their network.
From Twitter to Facebook, social networks can help political parties engage with the youth audience, disconnected from traditional political touch-points like door-to-door canvassing and television broadcasts. Unfortunately, too many rely on an impersonal ‘broadcast’ style, with little interaction and debate.
Additionally, against evidence that young people don’t respond to negative campaigning, many announce their party stance against heavy criticism of others.
Instead, politicians should think of social media as a digital space to pursue real engagement with voters. They can add a valuable ‘human face’ to politics through simple tactics like replying to tweets and comments, and welcoming meaningful discussion.
Twitter has even launched a round of ‘hashflags’ that add a visual element to political tweets. Small party logos are automatically added to tweets that post hashtags linked to the ten biggest parties.
Another Demos poll even found 25% of young people would be more likely to vote if they saw friends and family had via social media. Facebook’s shareable ‘I’ve voted’ button was used to great effect during Obama’s 2012 campaign, and helped drive the exceptional (80%) turnout of the Scottish referendum here in the UK.
Facebook’s ‘I’ve voted’ button was a great tool for increasing turnout during the Scottish referendum.
Implement digital voting
Online voting is a significant opportunity to raise the turnout of our young, truly ‘digital’ generation. Polling stations can seem fairly out-dated, considering how much of their lives (and personal information) they entrust to Internet systems every day.
Fortunately, with the support of the Electoral Commission, many believe the ‘digital democracy’ will arrive by 2020; whether this takes the form of touch-screen technologies in polling stations, or even secure web vote IDs.
Plenty of emotive analysis describes the vicious circle preventing higher youth-politics engagement. From student loans to employment opportunities, parties don’t prioritise issues that matter to young people while they are not part of the electorate.
But, they are not inclined to vote if these issues are not addressed. 82% of young people do not believe politicians communicate effectively with them.
With less than a month to go until the election, it’s never too late for parties to break the stalemate. From clearly communicating policies on their own websites, to using social media as a space for genuine engagement, digital platforms are a great place to start.
As we’ve seen, technological innovation can take this further by promoting advice applications, improving voter registration, or even shifting to online voting.