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Unpacking the ‘Youth’ Vote

An important development for electoral politics can be found within the changing age structure of the population, writes Collette Schulz-Herzenberg from Stellenbosch University.

Rapid population growth has caused the number of young people to swell. This has transformed the age distribution of the eligible electorate with the introduction of a significant proportion of young voters in recent elections. The largest age cohort is the one born in the mid to late 1980’s who reached their twenties at the time of the 2014 elections.

The latest 2016 midyear estimates from Statistics South Africa shows that there are now 11.8 million eligible voters between 18-29 years. This now comprises 35% of the voting age population. However, many eligible young voters between 18-29 years remain unregistered for the 2016 municipal elections. With 11.8 million eligible voters in this age group and only 6.3 million registered, only 59% of all young eligible voters can vote in the 2016 elections.

Similarly, among the youngest voters between 18 and 19 years, only 28% voters are registered. This compared unfavorably with older age groups whose proportions of registered voters range 80% and 94%. This data points to an increasing concern that the youth are under-represented at elections because they cannot vote.

The disproportionate numbers of young people in the electorate may offer a reason for the decline in voter turnout that South Africa has witnessed in recent years. As generational replacement occurs and younger voters enter the electorate in bigger proportions, turnout levels can be expected to fall. Global studies show that young voters are predisposed to lower turnout rates. The habit of voting is not yet established among young voters and their identification with a particular political party is likely to be weaker. Young people are less embedded in established social networks and organisations like churches and unions that mobilise people to vote, and they are less likely to have a spouse/partner, this having been found to be major influencing voter turnout. So, an increase in the absolute numbers and proportion of young voters in an electorate will in itself cause a decrease in aggregate turnout levels.

Nevertheless, despite the comparably lower proportions of registration among young voters, their sheer numbers in the population mean that 18-29 year olds make up 24% (almost a quarter) of all registered voters, which makes this group already very important to any election outcome. In terms of their actual numbers, 18-29 year olds hold as much influence at the polls as the next oldest cohort (30-39 year olds) which also comprises 24% of registered voters.

An important question for the 2016 election will be the extent to which younger voters turn out and leave an indelible mark on the electoral landscape. Nevertheless, lower registration levels among younger cohorts invariably limited their electoral imprint. This will have repercussions for political parties who appeal specifically to a younger audience, such as the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). Citizen Survey’s most recent 2016 survey found that age has a strong bearing on which parties South Africans are likely to vote for. The EFF gains significantly more support from younger voters. However, assuming if the EFF’s campaign message finds traction among younger voters, the party is unlikely to translate support into a significant proportion of votes. Overlooking a simple issue of registration can negate a party’s impact long before it is represented in a formal institutional setting. Even if registered, young voters are still less likely to turn out to vote compared to older voters.

Not only do younger voters have important implications for the overall participation levels, they can also affect election outcomes. Young voters are unpredictable because they are more responsive to short-term political events, like corruption, and changing political contexts than their older counterparts. They are less likely to have strong party affiliations and are more open to voting for an opposition party than their parents or elders.

Yet it is far from clear that ‘the youth’ will find a particular expression in the 2016 election. First, this is not a homogenous political group. Young people’s life experiences reflect the diversity of the broader South African society, and this diversity is bound to find different political expression. Those within the emerging multiracial middle class are recipients of democratic dividends. Yet, many more belong to an underclass of mainly poor, marginalised black Africans, and face the structural limitations of poverty, inequality and persistent unemployment.

In terms of education and class, Malema’s ‘young supporters’ and the DA’s ‘youth’ are fairly distinct. It may therefore be that socio-political diversity within this age group dilutes the effects of a ‘youth vote’. Nevertheless, young people have the most potential to change politics. Assuming for a moment that all eligible people in the youngest cohort (18-29 years) had registered and voted in the 2014 elections their combined vote would have comprised a considerable 45%, or almost half of all registered voters, up from their current representation at a quarter of registered voters. From a numerical perspective, therein lies the power of a ‘youth vote’ in South African politics.

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