OPINION: Voting and the 'meh' generation

Richard Chataway
By Richard Chataway | 3 September 2013

When you stand in the polling station on Saturday and ‘exercise your franchise’, take a moment to think about why you are there. Why do you consider the act of voting so important that you take time out of your weekend to do it? Is it because it is a privilege much of the world is denied? Your duty as a citizen? Or because if you don’t you’ll get fined?

As the BBC questioned last week, if it’s the latter, you might be querying whether this is a democratic exercise at all. You are probably also puzzled by the unusual (but highly engaging) Australian Electoral Commission’s ‘Your Vote is a Valuable Thing’ campaign, developed by BMF Melbourne.

Australia is one of the minority of countries where voting is compulsory - only 10 actually enforce it, and most of those only do so among people of working age. Despite this, a reasonable number of people don’t vote.

Ninety-one percent of eligible voters are actually on the electoral roll, as of earlier this year. In 2010, 93% of them turned out to vote, of whom about 95% voted formally (i.e. cast a valid vote) – the AEC target for all three metrics is 95%. As the BBC point out, this means that overall participation (i.e. the proportion of eligible voters who cast a valid vote) is actually closer to 80% - not significantly higher than a number of countries where voting is optional.

To understand the barriers to voting, we need to look at the 1.5 million people who are not enrolled (and consequently can’t be compelled to vote). Nearly half just haven’t got round to it (i.e. were waiting until the election was called), and a further third either don’t know or are simply disinterested.

So that means a third of those not enrolled do so because they are so disengaged with voting they can’t even say why they haven’t enrolled. I call them the ‘meh’ segment. These people need convincing of why the election even matters – hence the ads with glowing faces. Everyone else just needs a reminder, and the ads serve that purpose too.

From a behavioural perspective, this is interesting for two reasons. Firstly, not as many people are disinterested or disillusioned with politics (and politicians) as we might believe. Or it isn’t the primary reason they don’t vote – it’s more likely to be because of the process, hassle or sheer laziness.

Secondly, it exposes the myth that it is not necessary to change attitudes to change behaviour. Traditionally marketing has focused on changing attitudes, because that’s what communications is best at. It is also what we can most easily measure.

Voting shows that the answer is more complicated. There are still some cases where behaviour change is much more difficult – impossible even – if we don’t change attitudes first.

And that is why we need to give people that warm glow.

Richard Chataway
Director, Behaviour Change Unit

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