Special Report - GE15: Young voters will make an impact — only if they are politically aware

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on October 24, 2022 - October 30, 2022.
Special Report - GE15: Young voters will make an impact — only if they are politically aware
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SINCE I have turned 18 this year, I want to vote. It is my right as a citizen, and I am voting for my future,” says Alisa Maisarah Ahmad Rafiq, an architecture student at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM).

However, while she is excited to vote for the first time, she is not interested in the political developments in the country.

“I am not sure (of the issues that matter), as I don’t follow the news on politics, but I’ll vote for the party that I heard is doing the best (in terms of what it offers to the people),” she says.

Asked where she will be voting, she says she will “most probably” be voting in Batu Caves, where she lives with her family. This would be the Gombak parliamentary constituency, in which Batu Caves is located.

Alisa is one of the 1.4 million new voters aged 18 to 20 who have become eligible to vote in the 15th General Election (GE15) due to the amendment to the constitution gazetted on Sept 10, 2019, which lowered the voting age to 18 years, as well as introduced automatic voter registration (AVR) for adults aged 18 and above.

With the AVR, 6.23 million voters were added to the voters roll, thereby enlarging the electorate to 21.17 million, according to data from the Election Commission (EC). This gives more Malaysians the benefits and responsibility of taking part in the democratic process.

However, according to James Chai, a visiting fellow at ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute, in a June 15 report, this development seems to have exacerbated the long-­existing problem of malapportionment in Malaysia.

Malapportionment refers to unequal political representation arising from large disparities in the size of electoral constituencies.

Chai says that in the Malaysian context, the Barisan Nasional (BN) had long benefited from its dominance over the smaller rural constituencies, winning more seats even if they performed poorly in the larger, under-represented urban constituencies.

“[The Constitution (Amendment) Act 2019] CA 2019 has apparently aggravated this phenomenon because the new young voters tend to be located in the urban areas. Overall, malapportionment in Malaysia has worsened to its highest level in history,” he says.

He adds that Malaysia is the 13th worst-malapportioned country in the world, behind all its regional democratic counterparts. The large-small constituency ratio in Peninsular Malaysia has now increased by 11.45% on average, he says, with the most extreme example being Bangi and Lenggong, where the size of the electorate of the former is eight times that of the latter.

In the report, Chai says there are three effects following this severe malapportionment: violation of fair election principles, poorer welfare outcomes, and lower inclination to vote in the supersized under-represented constituencies.

“Politicians have a higher incentive to devote attention and resources to the smaller rural constituencies, where individual votes count more towards electoral outcomes. Voters in larger urban constituencies will see their votes as less consequential and become less inclined to turn out for voting.

“Since younger voters are more numerous in the urban areas, this may produce a negative long-term effect of fostering political apathy and cynicism among young citizens,” says Chai.

To be clear, it was just a matter of time before Malaysia followed the rest of the world in lowering the voting age to 18. The argument for the lowering of the voting age to 18 is related to the fact that in many countries, someone by that age could already be conscripted into military service.

Before World War II, most countries set the minimum voting age at 21 years old. In 1946, Czechoslovakia became the first country to lower its minimum voting age to 20. Other countries started to follow suit, lowering their age of franchise even lower, to 18.

The impact of having more young voters differs from country to country, and is influenced by the political climate they are in. However, looking at the 2020 US presidential election, young voters were instrumental in voting in Democrat candidate Joe Biden as the country’s 46th president.

Young voters in the US preferred Biden by a 25-point margin (61% to 36% favouring incumbent President Donald Trump), according to analysis by the Centre for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE).

And the young voters — those in the 18- to 29-year age bracket — were especially critical in the key battleground states that decided the presidential race, according to CIRCLE.

In Michigan, 62% of youth supported Biden, compared with 35% for Trump, and gave the former an edge of an estimated 194,000 youth votes, higher than the approximately 148,000-vote margin of victory in the state.

In Georgia, where the race between Biden and Trump was neck and neck, Biden received an estimated 188,000 more votes from youth than Trump did, according to CIRCLE’s data.

In 1969, the UK became the first country to lower its age of franchise to 18 through the passing of the Representation of the People’s Act.

According to the British Election Study (BES), which analysed data from the 2019 BES Post-Election Random Probability Survey for the 2019 UK general election, the analysis showed that older people were much more likely to vote Conservative and younger people were much more likely to vote Labour.

Statistics from YouGov confirm this trend for the 2019 general election, revealing a “crossover” from voting Labour to voting Conservative at 39 years old.

According to Thomas Loughran and Jona­than Tonge of the University of Liverpool, and Andrew Mycock of the University of Huddersfield, while the lowering of the voting age to 18 was successful overall in terms of political and public acceptance, an important negative aspect of votes at 18 — large-scale abstention among 18- to 24-year-olds — quickly materialised and steadily increased.

“In 1970, the first UK election to enfranchise 18- to 21-year-olds, 65% of 18- to 24-year-olds voted. This was 7% lower than the overall turnout level, a disparity which increased to 9% in October 1974 and further grew in successive general elections until reaching a peak of 23% in 2001.

“The causes were multiple and significant. The passage of the 1969 Act did not identify the need for civic or political education to socialise young people with the skills and knowledge required to vote.

“It also failed to transform the supply side of political culture by making political parties and authorities more responsive to young people’s views, thus incentivising them to engage with the political process,” they said in an article published by LSE British Politics and Policy on Nov 3, 2021.

GE15 will be the first general election where the impact of voters in the 18- to 20-year-old age bracket will be seen. It remains to be seen what effect the decision to expand the enfranchisement to this group will have on the Malaysian electoral process.

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