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Do we really need to mollycoddle so many apathetic people into voting?

Democracy is on the brain following the shock UK general election result and the pending marriage referendum here…

Image: Shutterstock/Ollyy

DEMOCRACY IS ON the brain, with a spectacular UK election upset coming from nowhere on Friday and a referendum on marriage equality at home on 22 May. The UK election results arrived in on the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, reminding us that the polls, the counts, the debates and the monster raving looney candidates standing onstage with the Prime Minister of a world power at 5am is a show that we didn’t get for free.

The two referendums to be held here on 22 May, with one of them that actually matters, have mobilised sections of society usually disengaged from the political process. The young in particular have been energised by marriage equality and are helping to drive a dynamic campaign with an energy all of its own, separate to the usual political machines that typically run these things.

The big worry for the Yes campaign is low turnout among the under 30s. According to the most recent RedC polling, 55% of those in the over 65 age group intend to vote no or aren’t sure. Referendum trends tell us that don’t knows tend to vote no. Among those aged 18-24, only 8% say they will vote no or aren’t sure. Intentions are wonderful things, but there are cohorts of people so engaged in the issue but disengaged in the process that their intention might not matter on the day.

Going into the referendum and its voter registration drive, the Youth Council of Ireland reckoned that up to 120,000 people under the age of 25 weren’t registered to vote. That number will have come down significantly as we did see persistent queues of people registering, but for “the civil rights issue of our generation” there did seem to be an awful lot of them turning up at the very last minute to do so.

A few thousand extra voters on the day could make all the difference

At least they knew to fill out their forms and go through the admittedly arcane, if still simple, process of registering. Kathy Sheridan wrote an interesting piece in The Irish Times describing a canvass on the doors, with a positive response for a Yes vote from young people. The canvassers were dismayed to discover, apparently, that one of the young voters thought that by registering on the Yes campaign website and liking their Facebook page, she had done her bit.

One can only imagine the flabbergasted flapping of Get Out The Vote organisers in the campaign, and I imagine they will have a few tales to tell on May 23 of things they had to do to ensure everyone got off their arses to vote. If the marriage equality margin narrows, as it seems to be doing in polls to date, then a few thousand extra voters on the day could make all the difference in a country that passed divorce by about one vote per ballot box.

We see the turnout game play through in every vote, be it a referendum or an election. Those who complain the most about politics seem to vote the least, with areas that are currently hotspots of water protests for example often failing to turn out the vote in the same strength as more affluent areas. In one constituency I’m quite familiar with, when you divide it in half along local electoral ward lines into an essentially middle-class to plain-rich part and a working-class to plain-poor half, the vote of a person in the poorer half is worth 0.7 votes of a person in the richer half. This is because turnout is higher in the more affluent part, and those folks tend to avoid voting for left candidates.

A common refrain is that voting doesn’t matter anyway

I wonder somewhat if we really should be encouraging the apathetic to vote at all. If you can’t be bothered to fill out a form to get registered, or can only do so at the very last minute with some cajoling, do we really want you to show up to the next vote after this one to tick a random box? The uninformed and the uninterested get the same number of votes as everyone else, but through a process of electoral Darwinism they seem to self-select themselves out of the voting gene pool. Perhaps it’s better to not have the votes than risk an actual Monster Raving Looney Party candidate winning a seat because, well, someone thought it was funny and wouldn’t really matter anyway.

A common refrain is that voting doesn’t matter anyway. In Ireland of all places, we have such an obscenely proportional system of voting in elections, and such close social referendums, that this conception couldn’t be further from the truth. The last two times we’ve voted on divisive social issues in the past 20 years, 10,000 votes out of 1.6 million cast has separated the yes and the no. In general elections, things are even closer.

The 2011 election was a very clear cut thing, but generally we tend to get governments that make – or just miss – majorities by the skin of their teeth. Fine Gael won the last seat in Galway East just 17 votes ahead of missing it last time. In 2002, it was 87 votes on the 8th count in Mayo that was the difference between Jim Higgins retaining his seat at the expense of Enda Kenny. One of the scourges of the left is that they find it difficult to get their voters out on polling day, versus the more middle-class voters who turn up to vote in walking, talking tax cuts for themselves.

If you haven’t registered to vote on 22 May, you’re too late; but it’s ok, we probably aren’t going to really miss the vote of someone who couldn’t be bothered. You’re just creating pointless paperwork. If you are registered, the good news is that turnout in even the most hotly contested referendums rarely breaches the 60% mark. So if you’re one a few thousand new voters registered for the first time, by showing up you might get that to 61% and tilt the balance your preferred way.

But then, maybe you’ll be busy that day. I can tell you who won’t be: the over 65s. And when the next General Election rolls around you might ponder why, during the recession, dole for the under 25s got cut and the state pension wasn’t. Apathy doesn’t buy influence.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman on columnist for TheJournal.ie. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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