While elections are an occasion for people to have a say in how they are governed and who will hold political power, voter apathy is a growing concern, especially among young people. Given their large numbers, when young people vote, they can decide elections.
There are several reasons why younger people tend to be underrepresented at the polls. One, ironically, is their frustration over serious problems that may be affecting their country, according to Michael Jobbins. Jobbins is the director of global affairs and partnerships at Search for Common Ground, a Washington-based nongovernmental organization.
“One of the problems is if you are a young person in many places across Africa or, frankly, in America or anywhere, you are coming of age in an environment where you see corruption, you see that your tax money isn’t giving you benefits, the schools are bad, the health clinics are bad, the roads are bad, and the electricity is bad. … The enormity of the task of changing the environment, I think, is something that drives voter apathy,” he said.
Voter education may be the best solution for apathy because it helps people understand that while countrywide problems need to be dealt with, participation in local elections is one way of taking action to fix the situation in their own neighborhood.
To be truly effective and see concrete change, Jobbins said, it is important not just to vote but also to hold the elected officials accountable and even influence them by offering suggestions.
“Leadership is demonstrated when you have solutions,” he said. “It’s not easy, but there has to be that broader civic consciousness that isn’t just about asking the state, which itself often lacks the capacity to solve problems.”
Deborah Thornton, a professional associate in the public affairs section at the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia, said another reason for youth voter apathy is because many young people have different priorities due to their financial troubles “in terms of jobs and where to live and trying to go to school and trying to get the money for school and for books.”
She recently helped facilitate sessions for young women on elections and democracy that included using the YALI Network’s online course “Understanding Elections and Civic Responsibility.”
“The group left motivated to begin outreach programs for the other young women in their university, teaching them about the importance of voting,” Thornton said. “From what we’re seeing, there is a lot of energy and enthusiasm about next year’s elections here [in Liberia].”
YALI Network participant Marc Gono from Côte d’Ivoire said the violent ethnic conflict following his country’s 2010 presidential election helped fuel voter apathy there.
“This crisis with this aftermath has created a real trauma in the entire Ivorian people,” he said. “Before this drama, the Ivorian youth were politically involved, not as candidates but as devoted voters.”
Using the YALI elections course, Gono recently organized an event on political engagement to help empower his country’s young leaders. The three-part course covers the role of citizens in the electoral process, how to exercise civic responsibility, and how to hold officials accountable.
“Hosting this event has been a great opportunity to empower the young leaders to engage in politics,” he said. “The surprising thing after this event is the will of all these young leaders to create a political organization especially dedicated to youth interests.” They plan to run in the legislative elections in December.
“We have to assume our own destiny through politics if we want to make a change. No one but ourselves can create a change for us,” Gono said.
He encouraged other YALI Network members to take the course, earn their certificate, and host a #YALILearns event to promote youth involvement in politics.
“Forget your doubts and fears and make your first political steps, if you really want to make a change,” he said.