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Young Voters a Force to be Reckoned With



Younger voters are the wild cards in the Australian electoral game. They are having a profound influence on the electoral landscape; an influence that has gone largely unrecognised.

There is a general acceptance that electoral change is afoot. The major parties have been unsettled by dwindling membership numbers and the increasing frustration of their ageing membership. The Labor Party has been rocked by its troubles at the ballot box and in the polls. The Liberal Party swings from elation at its resurgence in NSW to frustration with its containment federally. Both are grappling with organisational reform and factional arm-wrestling in the wake of the reviews by their respective party elders. The Greens, buoyed by increased parliamentary numbers and balance of power in the Senate, are opining about the day they might form government in their own right.

The nature and extent of future change is thrown into stark relief when considered in the light of the political behaviours and voting intentions of young people.

Young voters represent about 30 per cent of the electorate. This substantial proportion means a major shift in the youth vote will change an election outcome, notwithstanding the lower level of voter registration (particularly among 18 to 24 year olds).

Bearing this in mind, a conservative reading of Ron Brooker's new analysis for the Whitlam Institute of Newspoll federal voter intention survey data (1996-2010) indicates the youth vote has had a substantial effect on the past four (2001, 2004, 2007 and 2010) federal elections. The under 35s may have determined the outcomes.

The collapse of the youth vote for Labor between the 2007 and 2010 elections, for example, saw a drop of well over 15 points among 18 to 34 year olds, and their intentions to switch to the Greens (by roughly the same number) goes some way to explaining the hung parliament.

Those voters under 35 may well have become the most electorally influential demographic. Yet as an electoral cohort comparatively little is known.

We do know that young people are civically engaged but their political engagement tends to be in the informal "everyday" politics. They are strongly values-driven and their attachment is to issues rather than traditional political organisations. They are alienated from formal politics and the political organisations that dominate them.

Young people's tendency to shop around for what best fits their values and concerns is reflected in the volatility of their voting intentions, as highlighted in Brooker's analysis. This is also true of their support for the Greens.

A look at the voting intentions by age for the Greens for the period between the 2001 and 2004 elections and again between the 2004 and 2007 elections shows significant spikes and substantial shifts in support, suggesting that, in spite of upward trend-lines, the Greens are not immune from the rampant volatility of younger voters.

In short, it would be a mistake for any political party to think younger voters are attached to them exclusively. Moreover, the relative stability of voters over 50 makes the fluid nature of the youth vote more electorally significant.

There are two further points regarding younger voters' electoral behaviour that emerge from the analysis of voter intention survey data that political strategists might do well to bear in mind.

The first is that, notwithstanding the degree of fluidity, younger voters tend to be progressively inclined.

Brooker's review of the periods leading up to the five federal elections from 1998 to 2010, has shown the youth voting intentions have consistently been different from those of the other age groups. While the 25 to 34s have occasionally been the group to take the lead, it is the 18 to 24s that have been most extreme in supporting the "progressive" parties and rejecting the Coalition.

There are echoes of this in the shifting allegiances that saw the dramatic move to Labor in 2007 followed by an equally dramatic shift from Labor to the Greens among 18 to 24 year olds soon after that year's election. In fact the first major shift in this direction appears within the first quarter following the Ruddslide and not after the abandonment of the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme last year as is widely believed. The shift in 2010 was a second decisive move by 25 to 34 year olds, belatedly bringing them back in line with their younger electoral cousins.

The second is that gender matters. While young people broadly tend to support the progressive parties, young women tend to do so more consistently. At times the split is more marked as was the case in the dramatic shift of support towards the Coalition in 2001 among young men.

Disenchanted as they may be, young people may not realise just how significant their votes have been. While they opt for unstructured avenues for political expression, Brooker's analysis leaves you wondering just how potent a political force they might be if they chose to mobilise in the formal political arena.