Kathy Sheridan: Voting and Liking are not the same thing

Will young people’s zeal translate to the ballot box?

‘She had signed into the Yes campaign website and pressed “Like”. This, she assumed, served the dual purpose of registering and voting. For some “digital natives”, it may be almost comprehensible. For “digital immigrants” and everyone else, it seems an appropriate moment to pause for a WTF.’ Photograph: Getty Images

A weary young group arrived in from a canvass, reporting “mixed results”. One mimed a typical scene: canvasser rings bell, occupier opens door just enough to squeeze an arm through the chink, takes leaflet, closes door. After a few of those enigmatic responses, there was relief all round when a door was thrown open by a smiling young woman.

They chatted for a few minutes before a canvasser popped the routine question: had she registered to vote ? “Of course”, she said. Great, said the canvasser, now don’t forget to vote. “But I already voted”, she said. But eh, voting day isn’t for a few weeks, he said. “It’s okay,” she said happily, “I did it all online”.

She had signed into the Yes campaign website and pressed “Like”. This, she assumed, served the dual purpose of registering and voting. For some “digital natives”, it may be almost comprehensible. For “digital immigrants” and everyone else, it seems an appropriate moment to pause for a WTF.

This is the one campaign that was supposed to galvanise the young. It will intimately affect the lives of people they know and love. The wording is clear-cut. Politicians have kept their alienating schnozzles out of the picture.


So, to no one’s surprise, in a survey published last week, a whopping 94 per cent per cent of 18-to-35-year-olds said they would vote Yes. Four out of five claimed to be registered to vote, so no problem there. But here’s the surprise: only half said they intend to vote.

Thinkhouse, the marketing agency that conducted the poll, asked them why. One in three said they felt “the Government does not care about their opinions”. They’re annoyed. Of course they are. It would be odd if the relentless regime of cuts, misery and uncertainty that has defined seven years of their youth hadn’t left scars. But for two out of three, that was not the reason given. Even if it was, it wouldn’t explain why such vast numbers who support a cause have already made up their minds not to go out and vote for it. It makes no sense.

This is where a nice digital immigrant – ie a fiftysomething trying hard to keep up – will wring his hands and mutter something about online voting being the way to go for the young people. “. . . 2015 . . . digital natives . . . expected to queue up to tick a box on a bit of paper with a little pencil . . . mad, Ted . . . we have to take voting to where they are . . .”

It’s all of 13 years since we had our own little electronic voting fiasco before rushing back to the stubby pencil. In the UK, they still don’t have electronic voting. The online kind seems even further away. The main reason is security. Another is voters’ right to privacy. Even the Wikipedia founder, Jimmy Wales, has a problem with the idea of online voting.


“Voting from home and not behind a curtain in a public place may mean that for certain kinds of people in society their votes may be coerced or bought,” he told the BBC. While covering elections in places like Afghanistan, it occurred to me that the polling booth was the only place where women felt truly free to register their views. Leaving home, many would have been told how to vote, but once they entered that booth, some lifted their burqas and safely exercised their freedom to tick any box they liked.

And that’s quite apart from the alarming revelations about online privacy breaches, a problem all too familiar to digital natives. If voter secrecy and security are paramount, there is some way to go before they can be guaranteed online.

So why is an actual appearance at the polling station such a big ask? Anyone applying for an Irish driving licence has to show up, physically, at an office, often some distance away. Applying for a passport entails showing up, physically, at a Garda station to have documents witnessed. Most young people manage to do that without imploding. Is exercising the vote so trivial by comparison?

Voting intentions aside, I would be sceptical about that impressive 81 per cent in the Thinkhouse sample who claim to be registered, given a National Youth Council survey which found that as of last autumn, over 120,000 people under 25 weren’t on the register.


Anything is possible, of course. A staggering 97 per cent of the Scottish electorate ended up on the register for their independence referendum. Some 13 per cent got lost between that and the polling station, but it’s a start.

The voting register here closed yesterday and the 18-year-old we came in with is safely aboard. But is it possible that like her, some of the Thinkhouse respondents only think they've signed up?

The same sex marriage referendum will tell us some important things about ourselves. One of those is whether the zeal of young people on social media transmits to the ballot box. Or as Thinkhouse’s Elaine Verdon put it : “ . . . It’s easy to say something, but acting on it is totally different.”

Twitter: kathysheridanIT