Social media was quick to interpret the result of last month’s Referendum into a ‘war of generations’. Older voters, who had overwhelmingly voted to Leave, had sold out younger generations’ futures on the basis of campaign lies and prejudices.
This interpretation was based on initial projections showing the votes of 18-24-year-olds and those aged 65 and over as almost a mirror image of one another.
Source: ‘How Britain Voted’, YouGov, June 2016
This was compounded by early rumours of turnout breakdowns, which purported to show a huge gap between how many older and younger people voted. Remainers on Twitter bemoaned their supposed allies for failing to show up when it mattered, while others mocked their laziness. Youth turnout estimates ranged between 25 and 36 percent, but none of these estimates were credible.
However, since then a new estimate has appeared, suggesting that youth turnout was actually as high as 64 percent.
Source: Turnout estimates, Opinium/LSE, July 2016
There are a few things to say about these estimates, whether we can blame (or thank) young people for the result, and whether we can really say that young people were more engaged with the Referendum than in previous elections (Ipsos MORI estimated youth turnout to be around 43 per cent in May 2015).
First, we will never know for sure how many young people voted in the Referendum. There is no official breakdown, no way of checking from the electoral register, and turnout is one of the hardest things for polls to measure, even retrospectively, because respondents tend to be disproportionately politically interested. There are ways of getting around this, such as trying to speak to people multiple times over the phone or face to face, but none are perfect, and all are far costlier than standard polls.
Second, one of the key reasons that the pollster got it wrong at last year’s General Election was poor sampling of young people. Among this group, polling companies tended to over-represent those who were engaged in politics and more likely to vote. While post-referendum estimates may not have got around this problem, the gap is still smaller than those estimated for the 2015 election, which used the same approach. The true turnout gap may be larger than these estimates in both cases, but we can have some confidence that the gap has got smaller since 2015.
Perhaps most crucially, turnout figures are reported as a percentage of registered voters. We have no idea what proportion of the public who would otherwise be eligible to vote failed to register for the Referendum. Furthermore, there are good reasons to suspect young people would be more likely to get caught out.
The last time the Electoral Commission put together an estimate of registration rates (known as ‘completeness’), 18-24 year olds were significantly less likely to be registered than older voters.
Source: ‘The quality of the 2014 electoral registers in Great Britain’, Electoral Commission, July 2014
Moreover, these estimate were conducted before the introduction of individual electoral registration, which was always likely to hit young people hardest, as they could no longer rely on being registered by their parents, universities, or more politically engaged members of a shared household.
This means that the ‘real’ turnout gap is likely to be a lot higher than these figures. Furthermore, it means that any changes in the reported turnout gap might actually be presenting a false picture of the situation.
For example, when a government introduces stricter registration requirements, and those not significantly motivated to re-apply (and least likely to turn out) fall off the register, reported turnout may well go up because those left on the register are those motivated to go through the new process.
Conversely, when these restrictions are relaxed, or there is a significant drive to register young people – such as the heroic work done by Bite the Ballot in recent years – this may end up with reported turnout going down. Unless the newly registered cohort is at least as politically interested and motivated to vote as their peers, the situation might appear to worsen when in fact progress has been made.
Finally, whether young people turned out or not, their potential electoral power is, sadly, not all it’s cracked up to be. Last September I presented findings of a study in Demos Quarterly showing that despite young people being far more likely to vote Labour than Conservative in May 2015, higher youth turnout would hardly have altered the result at all.
In part this is down to the electoral system, which gives some votes more importance than others. This, of course, does not apply in a national referendum. However, even in this case, the simple fact is that there are far fewer 18-24 year olds (less than 6 million) than over 65s (over 10 million). Young people have less electoral power than old people because there are fewer of them.
Young people need to keep voting if they want to get their voices heard. But, having suffered a defeat last month at the ballot box despite turning out in relatively large numbers, it’s important that they continue to engage in other ways too, as a great many do: taking action in their local communities, lobbying their local representatives, and having constructive political conversations with people outside of their immediate peer groups and social networks.