Like many young adults, Petri will not vote – according to research non-voters aren’t the problem
In the previous municipal elections only a third of the people aged 18 to 24 voted. Petri decided not to vote and plans to do the same in the municipal elections this spring. According to Academy Research Fellow Hanna Wass, the problem is no so much about the non-voters, but in that voting is in danger of becoming an influencing tool solely for the elite.
On Sunday April 9th the streets will be crowded. The spring sun will be shining as people walk to the voting booths, drink election coffees afterwards and ask their significant others and friends who they voted for.
Petri, 24, will not take part in any of this.
“A few years ago I realised that there are a lot of big problems in the world”, he says.
To Petri, the elections however do not feel like a way to influence things. Since he was old enough to vote, Petri has not done so in any elections. When I ask why he has decided not to vote, he turns the question around.
“I just haven’t decided to vote in any point in my life.”
Petri is not alone, because only a third of the youngest group of voters actually voted in the 2012 municipal elections. The voter turnout in that election was 58.2 percent. Almost every other person walking past you in the streets belongs in the apathy party.
It is not easy to find non-voters willing to be interviewed.
Have you decided that you will not vote in the next municipal elections?
What’s confusing is that everyone seems to intend on voting. Via subject associations, Twitter and my acquaintances, my invite reaches a large number of people. Presumably there should be people among them who do not vote.
When I tell my mother about trying to find non-voters to interview, she encourages me to go check under a bridge. I won’t find anyone suitable among the people I know. I remind her that we’re talking about almost a half of the people eligible to vote in Finland, but after a few days I start to think my mother was right. Indeed, it seems like I won’t find anyone.
Researcher Sami Borg from the University of Tampere has noticed while studying elections, that not voting isn’t a popular conversation topic. Some people even lie about their voting behaviour: almost a third of those, who according to the research do not vote, claim that they have in a subsequent survey.
Borg uses the term ”social-obligation norm” to describe this phenomenon. This means that people recognise they should have voted and that it would be socially acceptable. Quilt over not having completed their civic duty might bother those who did not vote.
According to Sami Borg, considering voting a civic duty depends on age. For older people voting is a given as well as a ceremonial ritual whereas many 18 to 24 year olds do not consider voting an obligatory responsibility.
Petri belongs to the latter group. Not voting isn’t going to cause him any qualms and the matter appears to be clear. Clearly, Petri isn’t going to change his opinion anytime soon.
Borg says that Petri does not stand alone.
”About a fourth of those who do not vote consider it as self-evident. Around the coffee table they might be called pathological non-voters.”
Petri dropped out of vocational school as he did not regard the fields as his own. He is currently unemployed, but has plans for the future. One of them is starting his own business.
To Petri, politics feel unreliable and corrupt. He considers the internet more effective than traditional politics in reaching out to people and starting conversations.
Petri has been open about not voting and has never received any negative feedback about it. However, according to him not voting isn’t rare: a lot of people decide not to vote. ¨
“But those people are not one bit interested in politics.”
As Petri seems to be the only one willing to speak up about the topic, I disembark to the University. In the middle of the bright lobby, Elias says he plans to vote, absolutely, but some of this friends might not.
”They are in vocational school and are not interested in these kinds of issues. They might think that voting does not concern them.”
Again with the vocational school. Elias is talking about education levels. Hanna Wass and Sami Borg analysed the factors that lead to voting or not voting in the 2015 parliamentary elections. One of those factors was education level. In the research material, this is explained by stating that education provides readiness to form opinions about politics and thus adds to the obligatory feeling around voting.
In the 2015 parliamentary elections, the participation of especially young voters was connected to their education level: young people in higher education voted 2.5 times more likely than those with only a general education degree.
Other factors influencing voting behaviour were, for example the position the person works in and whether or not they owned property in their voting district.
The observation about the connection between education level and voting is easy to believe while interviewing young adults at the University of Tampere.
I hear the same story over and over again: must go and vote since we have the system. If you don’t vote, you don’t get to complain. Voting is considered self-evident and in the beginning many say that utilizing your vote absolutely has an impact. As the conversation progresses the students start to bring out problematic factors.
”In actuality, voting does not have that much of an impact. Democracy is not a good idea, because people are voting wrong in masses,” says Timi, who plans to vote regardless.
One student begins to ponder how election promises are routinely broken nowadays and another one stressed about the strategic measures about casting you vote to a candidate who actually has a fighting chance.
Nevertheless, voting is a given. Out of the ten people I interviewed, only one admits that he probably will not vote. Otto-Ville’s reason is lack of time.
“I haven’t had a chance to get to know the candidates and it feels futile to vote for someone who you don’t know much about. I have voted in presidential and parliamentary elections. They seem bigger.”
Sami Borg says that electoral democracy in the municipal elections, along with the European Parliament elections, is something to worry about. Those have the lowest voter turnout. As reasons for this, Borg names changes in the municipality structure and halving of the number of candidates since 1980.
”The alienation of citizens from the parties seems to affect the municipal elections in particular”, Borg says.
The amount of the apathetic could be something to be worried about and I’m sure many are. Academic Research Fellow Hanna Wass from the University of Helsinki thinks that talking about being worried is not going to lead anywhere.
”It an awfully worn-out way to talk about the non-voters. What are we worried about? Our political system? And according to whom?”
According to Wass, Finns have two kinds of responses to the non-voters.
“On one hand there is a lot of thinking about how to coax and stir up the people, but on the other, if there is a surprising outcome in the elections, suddenly there is a moral panic going on. Pondering if people have voted wrong. Tony Halme’s success in the 2003 elections is a good example of this.”
Instead of being worried about the amount of non-voters, Wass thinks that the real concern are the “elite circles” which can become an issue in different sectors of society. In regards to voting, this means that the candidates have a privileged background and they promote the issues of the privileged, meaning the voters. When this circle deepens, it is increasingly difficult for the non-voters to feel like a part of the political system.
For Petri, politics as a whole is “just one big show”. He doesn’t believe that voting has an impact. However, in Petri’s case there is no lack of interest towards social issues and he laments how hard it is to find people willing to talk about politics.
When Petri was younger, voting was a discussion topic at home but at that age social issues were not interesting. The terminology, parties, elections and different sort of sessions which would aid in following politics remain foreign and distant to Petri.
”Parties are just a way to separate people into different groups. People do however have a joint goal which is happiness. If that were a party, I would belong to that.”
There is already research happening in Sweden and the United States, about how much political decision making already lobbies for the privileged. Hanna Wass hopes that similar research would soon be conducted in Finland as well.
She criticises how voting is treated as a separate act from other issues: in reality it illustrates the wellbeing of the individual and eventually that of the entire society.
The election day reveals a lot then. Flags are waiving in the wind and the atmosphere is festive in some odd way. The evening will pass in front of the television. The next day the media houses will analyse the results from every possible angle.
In the middle of the elite circle, intoxicated by the election, it is easy to forget that for some, the spring sun only reveals the dust that has gathered in the corners of our political system.
Petri’s name has been changed.
The voting turnout of the previous municipal elections was 58.2 percent.
From the youngest group only a third voted. According to surveys most 18 to 24 year olds do not consider voting a civic duty.
According to the research regarding the 2015 parliamentary elections, possible influencing factors on voting behaviour are education level, profession and whether one owns property in the voting district.
Highly educated people were 2.5 times more likely to vote in the 2015 parliamentary elections than those with only a general education degree.