No, seriously folks, we have the data to prove it
It is an age-honoured tradition to blame young people for things that are wrong in society—its moral degradation is invariably due to the youth’s laziness, lack of education, and perverse taste. Although youngsters, much like immigrants and the fair people of Florida, are often used as scapegoats, they were indeed at fault for the low voter turnout in the latest municipal elections.
Before this May’s elections, the City of Reykjavík commissioned a group to collate and examine voter data. Headed by Páll Hilmarsson and Hildur Lilliendahl, they set out to find out who voted, how old they were and from which district they came. This is the first time that the city, or any other Icelandic municipality for that matter, has performed such a detailed analysis.
The election had an abysmally low voter turnout, with only 62.8% of registered voters casting their ballot, making it the lowest turnout since since 1928, when Iceland was still a Danish colony. What the group found, however, was that only 51.3% of 18-to-40-year-olds voted, compared to 72% of those 41 years and older.
Achieving the impossible
Páll says that people had worried that such a project would be too complicated and costly, but that was not their experience. “It’s not rocket science,” he says, “it just requires some work. We estimate that the total cost was around half a million ISK, which is a drop in the ocean compared to the total cost of the election.”
Once the votes had been counted, the ten-man team collected the social security numbers of those who voted, and with those they determined gender, age and residence. They then compared that data with a list of eligible voters to get a clear picture of which groups had and hadn’t cast their vote. The majority of the work took place over the course of two days, and the results were presented to the City Council’s Executive Board on August 14. To ensure voter anonymity, original data was deleted once the analysis was complete.
The group, which has overseen the elections the last few years, has long dreamt about conducting this kind of detailed study, as it is in their opinion important for a democratic society. “It’s vital to know what groups are voting and who is being left behind,” Páll says.
Páll had expected that younger people were voting less, but he was astounded by just how great the generational gap was. “The eighteen-year-olds, first-time voters, had a 51.2% turnout, which was well below the average,” he says, “but what’s striking is that our data shows that only 39% of the nineteen-year-olds, who were able to vote in the 2013 parliamentary elections, voted now. That’s a massive difference.”
He deeply regrets that the 2010 election wasn’t documented in the same manner, when comedian Jón Gnarr led The Best Party to power. “Voter turnout was better, at 73.5%,” he says, “and a largely apolitical mayor was elected. If we had that data available, we could definitively say whether or not young people have since lost interest in politics.”
In addition to the low youth participation in the elections, the study found a number of other statistically significant results. Women, for instance, were found to be more active voters than men until the age of 75. People living in Breiðholt and Álftanes also voted a lot less than those in older and more established neighbourhoods such as Vesturbær and Hlíðar.
These results did not come as a surprise to Dr. Stefanía Óskarsdóttir, a senior lecturer at the University of Iceland’s department of political science. She says that voter turnout has been steadily diminishing in the last few decades. “The party platforms may be too similar for young voters,” she says, “and people today are less interested in joining political parties. The ruling powers used to be able to give preferential treatment to their voters and party members, but everything has gotten more professional lately so they can’t get away with that any more, which in turn makes them lose some of their appeal.”
She adds that the parties aren’t focusing on issues that matter to young people, a sentiment echoed by Ingvar Smári Birgisson, chair of Heimdallur, the youth wing of the Reykjavík Independence Party. He believes that this generation’s political apathy isn’t limited to Iceland. “It is a global phenomenon, seen in both US and European elections,” he says. “The fight has been to get more women involved in politics,” he says. “Now we need to do the same for young people and get more candidates elected that are younger than 35.”
Meanwhile Halla Gunnarsdóttir, chair of Hallveig, youth wing of the Reykjavík Social Democratic Alliance, holds both the youth movements and political parties accountable for not engaging properly with young people. “We need to get them more involved,” she says, “because what happens in City Council affects their lives, such as with public transport and the rental market. We, the young people, need to have our voices and concerns heard by those in power.”
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