The case for a voting education


Opinion – By Matteo Di Maio.

Mike Hosking (for once) has a point.

In a recent column, the Herald commentator cautioned that there would be no fabled “youthquake” this year – to the detriment of Labour. And he’s right. Simply, young voters just don’t turn out.

This year, only 63 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds are enrolled to vote.

Why? And why is this a problem?

It’s a problem because this election is all about the future. Cannabis? Affects young people. Economic recovery? Affects young people. Climate change? Very much affects young people.

It’s a problem because – in an ageing population that votes religiously – the elderly tend to get the predominant say in issues that may not affect them as much as younger people.

And why don’t teens vote? Because the 18-20-year-old period is one of instability. You’re moving houses, moving to Uni, navigating an entry to the workforce. (In Austria, for example, which lets 16-year-olds vote, turnout is much higher among those aged 16 and 17 than among 18-21-year-olds.)

Another reason, perhaps, is because no-one has taught you how crucially important taking part in the civic process really is.

What’s called “civic education” does exist in New Zealand, in a way. For example, primary school children are supposed to “understand how groups make and implement rules and laws.”

But there is no overall cohesive program, and schools are left to fashion their own approach to teaching kids the necessity of voting. Notably absent, as well, is a strategy of encouragement for those just about to leave school, on how exactly you do register to vote, and why you need to.

Mike Taylor, from the Victoria University school of education, observed the imbalance caused by a lack of a clear civic curriculum.

In one school he went to, students were instructed to band together to create faux political parties. The crux was designing a pretty logo, not policy. The explanation from teachers was that they wanted to keep politics out of the classroom, to avoid upsetting parents.

In contrast, in another school he visited, students were taught to examine the 2017 election policies, analysing their real-world impact on people.

In the end, he had “little doubt which approach [to civic education] is likely to be most successful in ensuring young people grapple with political ideas and in encouraging civic participation.”

(Hint: the second one.)

At Cambridge High School, political education has come in the form of social studies. Geography taught us to analyse the issue of capitalism, classical studies and history to analyse social structures and class. But social subjects are always side-lined to subjects like English and Maths. And nowhere in this is instruction on how to actually take part in a democracy.

After all, there are programmes to educate teens on alcohol, safe internet use and healthy relationships. Why not on arguably the most important duty in a democracy? How about an integrated year 13 program that helps school leavers sign up to vote, navigating the tricky issue of registering addresses in your uni years?

And why is it important young people vote anyway? Well, voting at an early age creates life-long, habitual voters. And the policies of the government in question really do affect young people.

Covid-19 has been a massive shock to many young people’s lives. Their education, their future jobs, and their mental health – it’s all been thrown upside down. And a prudent recovery from the pandemic would see us lay the groundwork for a much more sustainable society, one that we will be able to live in.

So on the policy lists (18-year-olds can register to vote for now at vote.nz,) it really wouldn’t hurt to see something called “civic education in schools.” After all, more of us having a say in our future can’t be a bad thing.

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