New Zealanders under the age of 30 vote the least of any age group in New Zealand. But this year youth enrollment jumped up to 83%, up from 75% in 2017.

This was Ella Watson and her friends' first election, but they were pretty disinterested in politics leading up to election day.

Ella,18, says they are passionate about a lot of issues and have been to protests for things like climate change, but a lot of them feel their vote doesn’t matter.

“We are such a small country and it feels like your vote and opinion are one amongst many, therefore it doesn't have much power.

“I think that’s the reason a lot of kids our age didn’t vote. It’s feeling powerless that keeps them away.”

It was only when Ella had dropped her first ballot into the box she started to feel differently.

“It opened my eyes. I was like ‘wow, this actually has an influence’.

“I realised I need to pay more attention.”

The youth voter surge

People aged 18 to 30 vote the least of any age group in New Zealand.

In the 2020 election, around 61% of eligible people under 30 voted, compared to 85% of people aged 70+.

But that is changing. 

The number of young people voting has steadily increased across the last three elections.

In 2017, only 75.5% of people under 30 were enrolled to vote. That increased to 81% in 2020, and 83% this election.

The number of young people who actually voted in this election won’t be released for a couple of weeks, but in the past there has been quite a big gap between enrollment and turnout figures for young voters.

In 2020 although 81% of people under 30 were enrolled, only around 60% actually voted. 

That’s still a big jump from 2014, when around 50% of eligible people under 30 voted.

Ella says she thinks the reason we’re seeing this gap is that election marketing is doing a good job making people aware, but not at making them care.

“[Election awareness marketing] has a big presence on social media,” Ella says.

“You see a TikTok and it reminds you the election is coming up and you need to enrol, but you don’t necessarily care about it.”

Electoral Commission deputy chief executive of operations Anusha Guler says young people tend to enrol much closer to election day - around 110,000 people under 30 enrolled on election day this year.

“We advertise widely across TV, radio, online, in print, on billboards and signs, and on social media. Our advertising is designed to reach everyone, including younger voters and Māori,” Anusha says.

The Raukawa movement

This election also saw an increase in Māori enrollment, with 31,500 more enrolments on either the general or Māori roll than in 2020.

Massey University associate professor of politics Veronica Tawhai (Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Uepohatu) believes the increase in youth voters and Māori voters goes hand in hand due to the increase in young Māori graduating from kura kaupapa Māori (Māori-language immersion schools).

“Raukura [kura kaupapa Māori graduates] do not have the challenges that some other young Māori have in terms of identity and knowing how they might think about politics from a Māori perspective,” Veronica says.

She says kura kaupapa Māori schools are inherently political by their use of te reo Māori, as the fight to preserve the language is connected to the past historical attempts at its demise which leads to students “understanding themselves as a citizen in a colonial environment”.

“Because we have a generation of raukura voters who are more confident and secure in who they are and have more formed political views, we see a greater interest in Māori issues around the elections and desire of young Māori to become involved - as is their right.”

What engaged young and Māori voters means for our democracy

Veronica says a bigger engagement of young Māori voters is important to the legitimacy of our democracy as a country formed on a treaty between tangata whenua and tangata tiriti.

“The inclusion and representation of young people's ideas, aspirations and values is important to Aotearoa now and into the future,” Veronica says.

Thomas Brocherie,15, is the co-director of Make it 16, a group advocating for the voting age in Aotearoa to be lowered to 16 years old.

He says the increase in young people enrolling and voting shows that young people, including 16 and 17-year-olds, are engaged with the issues facing Aotearoa and deserve to have a say on them.

“We have ideas of our own, we’re not influenced by what our parents think, we have the ability to think and vote on what is going on in the world around us.

Thomas believes the strong turnout we saw for minor parties this election was partly driven by the larger youth voter turnout.

“It shows that we’re not pressured to follow the norm, voting for major parties. We will seek alternatives like Green, Te Pāti Māori and ACT.

“We’re not beholden to the previous generations' views in making decisions.”

Thomas says their organisation has been met with scepticism that 16 and 17-year-olds would vote if given the chance, but he says this uptick in youth voter enrolment shows that young people are engaged and turning out to vote and this would also be the case if the voting age was lowered.

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