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Dr Lloyd Waller: Capturing the youth vote

Published:Sunday | February 14, 2016 | 12:00 AM
Dr Lloyd George Waller
Nicola Satchell
Young people in a jubilant mood at a PNP in Annotto Bay, St Mary, in November. Youth are becoming increasingly disenchanted and cynical about politics in Jamaica.

We have, over the last few weeks, been observing several discussions in the print and electronic media on the issue of youth vote. This prompted us to share with Jamaica research that we have been doing at the Department of Government, UWI, since 2013.

The issue of youth participation at the polls is an international concern. The Mirror (a British newspaper) presented the results of a poll that showed approximately 60 per cent of young people living in Great Britain stating that they would not be voting in the 2015 election. Similar concerns were recently raised in the United States of America, fuelled by the outcomes of the 2012 general election, where only 45 per cent of the youth population (18-29 years) turned out for the presidential polls.

Jamaica's last election saw 53 per cent of those enumerated participating. Currently, Jamaica does not disaggregate voter information according to age or sex. This kind of data is important in deconstructing the issue. The Electoral Office of Jamaica has made a commitment to making this information available after the next election.

While political participation through voting is not the sole determinant of a functioning democracy, it is most certainly a vital aspect of the democratic process. It is also a core indicator of democratic maturity, especially for relatively young postcolonial democracies such as Jamaica's. Voting is one of the primary ways that citizens can hold their elected leaders accountable - this includes fulfilment of campaign promises. This underscores the importance of documents such as election manifestos.


We begin with our 2013 study on political talk. Here we found that youth participation through political talk appeared to be shifting to the online public sphere in many parts of the world. Many attribute this shift to online social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. This study explored such a possibility in Jamaica. In all, 752 youth ages 15 to 24 were surveyed.

The findings suggest that (a) Facebook is an extension of offline political talk among the civically engaged and politically charged youth of Jamaica; (b) Facebook does not substantively encourage political talk among the politically apathetic Jamaican youth; and (c) fear of political victimisation is the primary factor that discourages many Jamaican youth to engage in political talk on Facebook.

In 2014, we conducted the youth values and attitude survey where concern was raised about the young people's thoughts about citizenship. In this analysis, 48 per cent of the 1,037 youths interviewed would leave Jamaica and live in another country. A lack of confidence was also measured; 60 per cent believed that the country was not being managed effectively, and 62 per cent noted that the current leaders do not have the capacity to manage the country's affairs.

Although 50 per cent of those interviewed thought it was absolutely important that the country be governed democratically, only 41 per cent of those 18 and over were registered voters. And 37.3% of those who could at the time voted in the 2011 election.

The final set of data collected in 2015 focused on political apathy. Eight hundred and one persons were interviewed; 372 youths between the ages of 18 and 24 years (youth) and 263 young adults 25-35 years of age in the 14 parishes of Jamaica. Although 67.8 per cent of the participants believed in the democratic process, only 47.7 per cent (of those who were eligible then) indicated that they voted in the last election and 32.4 per cent of those who were between 18 and 24 years at the time of the interview.

The study made an attempt to predict future voting. This was based on two main indicators: the first were behavioural indicators measured by enumeration status, and the second was attitudinal, determined by intentions to vote in the next general election. Fifty-five per cent of youth (18-24) were enumerated, compared with the 71.2 per cent of young adults (25-35 years) and 79.4 per cent of those 36 years and older. The specific question formulated to assess intention to vote in the next election was: "Will you be voting in the NEXT general election that will be held in your country?"

Intention to vote in the next general election

Age Groups Yes No Total

18-24 years 146 (45.6%) 174 (54.4%) 320

25-34 years 142 (49%) 148 (51%) 290

35 and over 127 (66.5%) 64 (33.5%) 191

Total 415 386 801

Respondents were asked why they would not vote in the next election, 351 participants reacted. Most persons (85.2%) were apathetic - 123 youths, 103 young adults, and 52 older adults. When asked why they were not going to vote, the responses included: lack of trust in political representatives; fear of political victimisation; lack of confidence in the capabilities of "political leaders to provide opportunities for Jamaican citizens" and promote the "development of the country"; and a general lack of political efficacy - that their voice "does not count anyway".


While young people place relatively little trust in their political representatives, they are displaying important signs that they are engaged with, and have a high degree of faith in the democratic process itself. Youths are actively informing themselves on political matters; they are engaging in volunteerism, but are unwilling to vote. This finding also speaks to challenges in political socialisation and the wider political culture.

There have been many suggestions about how to solve this particular democratic deficit and there have also been several attempts to do so in various parts of the globe. We highlight three solutions here: first more public education, attempts to make politics 'cool' to young people, and finally positive campaigning focused on the 'real issues'.

Public education campaigns have been designed to get young people to vote. The 'Framework of Citizenship Education' in Scotland, 'Rock the Vote' in the United States, 'Bite the Ballot' and 'My Vote 2014' in the United Kingdom, 'Elections Canada Online' in Canada, as well as the 'Rock Enrol' campaign in Australia, are examples of this. These projects and programmes combine strategies such as door-to-door canvassing, the use of flyers and leaflets, phone banks and robocalls, parties at the polls, television, radio and print advertisements, as well as the use of social media.

Surveying the websites of both major political parties (days before an election), there is limited information on the candidates and a synopsis of what they have to offer, this, although several studies have shown that the youth are using the Internet for information more than other members of the society. There seems to be some attempt by both parties to use Twitter and Facebook to generate political talk.

On the point of 'making politics cool', examples include President Obama's use of social media during the 2008 and 2012 US presidential elections, as well as support from North American pop icons, such as singers Beyonce and Jay-X, daytime television host and media mogul Oprah Winfrey, as well as actors Matt Damon and George Clooney. In the UK, it included Tony Blair's connection to the Brit pop movement and photo ops with Oasis and Blur fit within this category. And in Italy, we have seen Berlusconi use U2's lead singer Bono in a marketing brochure.

In a discussion with the youth on 'All Angles' aired February 3, 2016, the young people were voicing concern about the nature of the political confrontation. Internationally, youths are expressing a concern for negative campaigning. An experiment done in the USA among 256 students, for example, found that negative campaigning did not help youth to clarify issues, build political efficacy, or solve the cynicism they feel towards the political movement. Political parties should therefore listen to the young people. The reality is that the ideological differences between the parties are no longer wide and varied. Youths are calling for greater clarity of the issues that affect their lives not the idle banter between the parties.

Our concern is that if the issue of youth engagement is not adequately addressed, we will see a situation of what we are calling 'absolute apathy'. This is where we will see our youths disconnected from all spheres of political life, fuelled by fear of political victimisation, lack of confidence in the leaders, a belief that the country cannot provide adequate opportunity structures for them, and a general lack of political efficacy - that their voice does not count.

We recognise global attempts to encourage youth participation. Locally, though, in addition to these strategies, political leaders, in particular, will need to convince the young electorate that they have the capacity to positively transform their lives, their communities and the country.

The Department of Government, specifically, and the UWI, generally, are committed to continue research on this and other youth-related issues, as well as developing programmes and projects to engender youth participation and mainstreaming.

- Dr Lloyd Waller is the head of the Department of Government. Nicola Satchell is a lecturer in the Department of Government. Email feedback to