An interesting analysis of voting behaviour in the recent Repeal referendum, by LY activist Jake Murray.
On Friday the 25th of May, the nation went to the polls. The referendum to remove the 8th amendment to the constitution which criminalized and prohibited abortion in Ireland was passed by a landslide. This was passed with 66.4% of the vote in favour of removing the amendment and a turnout of 64.5% (the third highest for a referendum in the history of the state).
The result was overwhelming not just for its democratic legitimacy and its clarity of opinion but also from an emotional point of view. This decision by the people of Ireland has been 35 years in the making and the outpouring of pride evident in Yes campaigners is a testament not only to their hard work and dedication, but is also a reflection of a renewed faith that we on this island can have in each other as we build a more inclusive, ethical and honest society.
The campaign resulted in a majority Yes vote from almost all age groups (over 65’s being the sole exception) and a Yes vote from all bar one of Ireland’s geographic areas (Donegal voted No by just under 52%).
Buried in these figures are some encouraging trends and also some prudent lessons for Ireland’s next exercise in direct democracy.
According to the exit poll conducted by the Irish times, the Yes vote was strongest among ages 18-24 at 87% which was followed closely by the next youngest group of 25-34 years where support for Yes was at 83%.
The resounding strength of the Yes vote among younger voters shows us that the age group will be a major force in any future referendum or presidential election. There are three key reasons that the youth vote needs to be taken seriously. The first is unanimity. The choices of younger voters may hold less weight in local or parliamentary elections either due to party divisions or the fluctuating average age ranges in different constituencies. In a referendum however, their group is not limited by these factors and the results of the referendum to repeal the 8th amendment show that, on social issues at least, the voice of Youth voters is both loud and unanimous. In contrast, the votes of older age groups were split more on the issue making them a less effective group to target based on age.
The second strength of this age group is their willingness to engage in political discussion and advertise their beliefs online. While socially conservative commentators may be tempted to claim that the youngest groups are engaged in online ‘slacktivism’, the conversion of their online enthusiasm into massive turnout during this referendum should serve as a warning to anyone dismissive of young people’s commitment to following through on their ideas. Indeed, complaints directed at young people claiming they have created online ‘echo chambers’ seem similarly unfounded. Looking again at the unanimity of the youth vote, it seems more appropriate to describe the process of online discussion as genuine and earnest consensus building and mutual encouragement ahead of a large decision. With every person their own platform and every platform broadcasting to each other, the prospect for there being a ‘silent vote’ in future referendums grows more unlikely with each passing year.
The third strength of this group is their size. The 65+ age group was, as of the 2016 census, 637,567 people. The group aged 18-35 in Ireland clocks in at 1,133,457. While these raw census figures, themselves slightly outdated, do not take voter registration into account (and stretch the definition of ‘youth’) it is significant that this group vastly outnumbers Ireland’s oldest and most socially conservative voter grouping. Combined with their near unanimity of voting during the referendum, this marks young voters out as a populous and powerful bloc.
While this may be encouraging to young voters themselves there are some lessons that can be taken from these figures for future campaigns. As mentioned, the census demographics point towards a more unanimous and socially liberal group of young voters, but on polling day their efficacy is entirely dependent on registration and turnout. Campaigners looking to appeal to younger voters will need to not only convince them to vote ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ but will also need to combine campaign messaging with registration drives and tactics to encourage turnout on polling day.
(The views expressed in Left Tribune articles are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of Labour Youth).