Three ways to get Millennials voting

For starters it should be possible to vote online—as it is in Estonia

April 26, 2016
Estonian Parliament in the country's capital, Tallinn. Estonia allows its citizens to cast their votes in general elections digitally ©Egil
Estonian Parliament in the country's capital, Tallinn. Estonia allows its citizens to cast their votes in general elections digitally ©Egil

In May 2015, Britain showed that its tradition of democratic participation is alive and well, when a contest that had provoked passionate debate came to its closely fought end. Indeed, the final of Britain’s Got Talent was watched by nearly 12m people. Of course, it wasn't the only poll taking place that month. But in contrast with the general election, BGT had moved with the times, and audience members of the reality show could cast their votes through a smartphone app.

Votes in the general election were cast on paper, as they always have been. In the end, 34 per cent of the electorate did not participate; the victorious Conservative party only received 24.3 per cent of the vote. Some of the causes of political disengagement seem well-understood. Trust has been undermined by successive scandals. We now have less faith in politicians than we do in estate agents, according to Ipsos MORI. Similarly, research by YouGov suggests that just one in ten Britons believe that politicians try to do what is best for the country.

Yet the British Social Attitudes survey shows that the proportion of people with “quite a lot” or a “great deal” of interest in politics has actually increased in the past three decades. Over half of us say that we would take part in a citizens’ assembly on important issues facing our local community, and nearly everyone (92 per cent) believes that people should be involved in the design and delivery of services, according to research by the Community Development Foundation.

It is only by redesigning the democratic process for the 21st century that we can rebuild trust and revive political engagement. In the same way that industries are being disrupted by new platforms and technology, politics too must adapt. We propose three changes to politics that embrace the power of technology. Digital solutions are not an end in themselves, but they can make citizen engagement and participation possible in new ways.

First, it should be possible to vote online. Estonia brought in online voting in 2005. By the 2015 Estonian parliamentary elections, 30.6 per cent of votes were cast digitally. In Britain, the idea of e-voting has been consistently backed by the public, and it also has the potential to make the process cheaper and faster.

Second, policy-making should be crowd-sourced to open up the political process. Research shows that the more people who are involved in the creation of something, the more ownership they feel over it: it's called the “Ikea effect.” Finland’s 2012 Citizens’ Initiative Act encouraged crowdsourcing in drawing up legislation: the country’s 2014 Equal Marriage Law was a direct consequence, with online platforms used to draft the bill and secure support for it.

Third, share government data openly. Making data available leads to innovation and allows apps and platforms to flourish—and leads to better solutions to problems than government could generate by itself. When Transport for London made data public, it spawned the creation of more than 200 travel apps such as CityMapper and Bus Times. Central government has already made headway here through the Government Digital Service. Glasgow City Council and others are blazing a path for local government by making over 370 city-related datasets available.

Millennials (those born between the early 1980s and early 2000s) are the most politically disengaged generation. This is unsurprising, given the gulf between an analogue political system and the lives of these “digital natives.” But the functioning of democracy depends on engagement and exchange, giving voice to diverse perspectives and needs. If this fails, and a generation is left out in the cold, we as a society will be left unable to rethink priorities for the challenges of the future—like giving people the resilience and skills they need to adapt to a fast-changing economy.

It is only through innovating democracy that better, more imaginative solutions will emerge. Our leaders need to embrace this challenge if they are to re-engage the public. This means creating platforms for all citizens to engage in politics. The path ahead will be faced with much resistance from entrenched interests. But the status quo is untenable. There is a bright, radical, and democratic future ahead—it just needs the right leadership to get us there.