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Comment - Shona Morrison - More young people should step forward as candidates

Published: 4 Jun 2014 15:000 comments

There’s something unique and exciting when elections roll around in Northern Ireland.

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I found myself looking forward to the weekend that has just passed because the way that people vote, and of course whether or not they even do vote, says a lot more than just results on a piece of paper.

Coming up to that fateful day, we have weeks of speculation and canvassing, which is then followed by weeks of analysis and predictions for the years ahead. However, as I write this on Monday night, we’re stuck in something of a limbo.

Voting took place on Thursday and the counting of the local council elections started on Friday. On Saturday, it was still in full swing and it wasn’t until late that night that all of the new ‘super council’ areas managed to announce their full results. Sunday was then taken as the day of rest before it all started again in Belfast where the votes for the European parliament were counted. By the close of play that night, only one Member of the European Parliament has been elected and it didn’t seem like we were going to hear of the other two any time soon.

I really find myself wondering why it all takes so long. In terms of the local elections, my old university town of Sunderland managed to declare their results a mere hour and a half after the polls had closed. In fact, many parts of England had their results published before we in Northern Ireland had even begun the arduous task of counting the ballot papers.

Is it time that we reformed the whole way that we vote? From the inception of the system, we’ve always had to make our way to the polling stations which are usually based in schools. Once there, we’re handed a slip of paper and told to put a number or a cross on it before posting it into a black box. It’s all very manual for the 21st century.

Would it not be much more efficient to create some kind of electronic form of voting? While we may still have to make our way to the schools, could we not input our choices just as anonymously on a laptop or something similar? That way when the polls close, it would be simple to just send all that data off to a central place where it can be calculated with some fancy software and moments later all the numbers will be there ready for announcement. Keep it simple for the voters by giving them a unique random code to enter that ensures that it is a valid vote and even give the option of “spoil my vote” at the bottom – that way we have all bases covered!

The turnout for these two elections ended up at just over 50 percent which is higher than usual for a European election. I suppose a lot of that is due to the fact that we’re more likely to vote in the local and assembly elections because we’re voting for someone who is a real-life familiar face and doesn’t only seem to exist in the magical month of May.

With politics and decisions made in Parliament Buildings affecting our everyday lives, it’s disheartening to note that there is a slow yet steady decline in the number of people who are taking up the opportunity to vote. I do understand that we do live in a democracy and so it is your democratic right to not vote, and I’ll try not to do as some others do and guilt you into it, but I think it’s just a bit rich to complain about policies and politics in the future if you didn’t, because you had the opportunity to make some small difference with minimal effort. If you really don’t agree with a party, you had the opportunity to be tactical about it and vote to keep them out. But if you didn’t, well, you’ve kind of fallen on your own sword there.

But that’s just my stance. For yet another concurrent election, the turnout among 18-24 year olds is disproportionately low. There are no concrete statistics for last week, but in the 2009 EU election, only 18 percent of this age group actually voted. It’s quite sad because in the next decade or so, it’ll be my generation who make up the majority of the candidates and yet we just don’t seem to be all that interested in the political realm.

I suppose there are a number of reasons as to why young adults don’t vote and it is up to each individual to decide whether it’s valid enough to stay at home while the future is decided.

There’s a widespread belief that no-one engages with this age group; we never really see the politicians and they don’t seem all that approachable. Personally, I disagree with this because while we may not see our MLAs hanging around ‘The Diamond’ at two in the morning on a Saturday night, they’re tackling issues that either directly affect us now, or will do in the future. While I may have left Collegiate, it’s still an issue that matters to me and so it was a deciding factor in whom I deemed worthy of a preference on my ballot paper last week.

My personal gripe however is that we just seem to be getting the same old each time we come to an election. While fresh faces do emerge, it’s unlikely that they’ll be successful in their first quest for power. As one political commentator put it, we’re “stuck with the dinosaurs”. But unless more young people are willing to step forward as candidates for election, there’s no real way that we’re going to manage to fossilise those reptiles any time soon. I’ll admit, I watched the election counts unfold and there were times when I sighed because people were being elected whom I don’t believe are going to neither move our councils forward nor look after the interests of the community as a whole.

As I finish writing this piece, the European election count has been called off for the night, set to resume on Tuesday morning. Hopefully by the time you are reading this, we’ll have definite results as to who is to represent us in Europe. If the count has taken this long with only half the electorate actually submitting a vote, imagine how much longer it would take if we all filled in a ballot. In that case, I honestly thing that I wouldn’t mind the wait half as much because it’s a more representative picture of what the people want and how they want the future to pan out. For the next couple of years, we have an election each May, so perhaps now it is time to buck the trend and increase the turnouts. We can show that we do actually care about the future and elect a few new people with fresh ideas and outlooks. An election can change everything if only we work together.

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