Lesson from Brexit: Young Voters Must Be Engaged

July 20, 2016

In the weeks since the Brexit referendum, the narrative has shifted from Remain versus Out to young versus old. Whereas about 72 percent of people ages 18–24 voted Remain, this was only true of 32 percent of voters older than 65. But there was an equally staggering difference in turnout between the generations: Initial estimates placed young voter turnout at 34 percent to 83 percent for voters over 65, and while a new poll found that a much greater percentage of young people voted, there was still a 30 percent difference in turnout between age groups. On the one hand, many young voters failed to cast a vote for their future; on the other, no effort was made to engage them in the discussion.

A common misunderstanding is that the young generation is not interested in participating in this political environment. In fact, they do participate, but not through formal political channels. Young people are active in civil rights movements, activism and demonstrations such as the Young Doctors protests in the UK, and write frequently about political issues on their own blogs and social media. But somehow, this participation does not translate to formal politics and the ballot. If it is not because of disinterest, the cause must be found somewhere else.

Brexit has proven once again that the institutional framework for encouraging and facilitating the political participation of young voters is not sufficient. In the campaign leading up to the Brexit referendum, issues such as higher education, job opportunities abroad, and career development—all issues important to young people who have gotten used to easy traveling, studying abroad, and international social networks—were hardly discussed. Media and politicians alike often made the mistake of taking the young vote for Remain for granted. Young voters’ opinion was indeed quite clear; however, their voting behavior was not guaranteed at all.

A similar situation is unfolding in the United States in the run-up to the presidential elections. Young voters have a distinctly different opinion than their parents and grandparents. More young voters have voted for Bernie Sanders than for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump put together. This corresponds with the huge young turnout to Sanders rallies. Unlike other presidential campaigns, the Sanders campaign successfully engaged young people in both the formal and informal aspects of politics. It was a perfect example of the shared responsibility that needs to be more widely recognized in elections and politics in general.

In a democracy, every citizen has a right but also a responsibility to vote. It is a responsibility to engage with one’s community and make an informed decision about what seems the best choice for the future. This responsibility is shared by politicians, who are also citizens. They have the responsibility to make it possible for everyone to engage and to shape a positive institutional environment for each and every citizen to do so. This starts with enabling and encouraging voter registration and discussing the issues that diverse groups of voters care about.

Brexit has shown that this shared responsibility cannot be taken for granted on either side. Politicians failed to enable youth to engage actively in the referendum within the formal political framework. This, in turn, caused many young people to neglect their own responsibility to vote. And this is cyclical: Because young people do not vote, they draw less attention from elected officials. The result has shocked many, but too late.

The Brexit vote ought to be a cautionary example for American voters and elected officials. It should send a message to my peers that no one will vote in their interest for them, and that their future is entirely in their own hands. Likewise, elected officials should realize that they have a very powerful potential voting bloc that is open to good ideas and a real vision. Bernie Sanders has shown that engaging this voting bloc can make great things happen. Brexit has shown that not engaging it can lead to a great deal of unrest and political instability. An entire generation feels misinformed, passed over, and ignored. For Britain the vote is over, and it is too late for now. But the United States has another chance. Voters and candidates, now and in the future: Learn from this situation and take responsibility for your future.