If we want youngsters to turn out at the polls, we need to convince them that their views really count, argues Rhydian Huw Thomas
In just under two weeks, the people of Blaenau Gwent will be voting in by-elections for Westminster and the National Assembly for Wales. The campaigns have been closely covered in the media and the turn-out is predicted to be high. But what proportion of young people will vote?
At the 2005 general election, turn-out among 18 to 24-year-olds fell to an all-time low of 37 per cent. For the National Assembly elections of 2003, it was even worse: only 16 per cent.
The first few elections young adults experience can be crucial in shaping their political outlook. But the young seem to be acquiring a worrying habit of non-voting. There are warning signs that a Generation No X is emerging.
Recent research found that two-thirds of 18 to 24-year-olds want to have a say in how the country is run. And they do feel strongly about issues that affect their everyday lives - from the cost of their night out to the environment, education and housing.
The challenge we face is to reclaim politics and make it relevant and responsive to young people's lives - and involve them in the process. It is also vital that their awareness and understanding of politics and democracy is increased.
One of the most important findings from a consultation with 150 young people, carried out by the Council for Education in World Citizenship Cymru, is that young people often perceive themselves as not informed enough to vote in elections. They lack the confidence to go to the polls.
Promoting citizenship and democracy in the classroom is one way for us to give them the information and confidence they need. We want them involved in the decisions that affect them and their communities.
In response to demand from young people, youth workers and teachers, the Electoral Commission has produced two resources for the classroom which present democracy in a fun, interesting and exciting way to young people.
The recently launched democracy disk is an interactive CD-Rom exclusive to Wales. It contains a wealth of information on all levels of democratic representation, from Welsh MEPs in Brussels to the duties and responsibilities of local councils. The disk also includes interactive quizzes, videos, music and games.
But it isn't just an encyclopedia of Welsh politics, it also provides young people with all the information they need to get involved. There are easy guides on registering to vote and how to vote, and tips on getting involved - such as starting a local campaign, joining a youth council, or contacting your local representative.
The Democracy Cookbook is another good resource. This explains how politics works, what our democratic institutions do, and why they matter.
The Electoral Commission's own research has shown that familiarity with politicians pays off - people are more positive about their own representative than about politicians generally. Where politicians are more visible in their constituencies and seen as local champions, young people feel more connected. They feel that what they think matters every day, not just in the run up to an election.
With this in mind, the Commission funded the pilot stage of the Hansard Society's project: Assembly members in schools. This has produced an information pack on the National Assembly and the work of its members.
Young people continue to have the lowest turn-out at elections in Wales.
They need the information and confidence to re-engage in politics. The task of enthusing them about politics and giving them the confidence to vote in the 2007 Assembly elections is a challenge for everyone - parents, teachers and youth workers.
It is essential we remind young people that they can affect the decisions that shape their lives.
Rhydian Huw Thomas is participation officer for the Electoral Commission Wales. For free copies of the Democracy Cookbook or disk, email: email@example.com or tel: 029 2034 6800. Hansard Society pack, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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