Good-bye Elections, Hello Internet

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The lack of trust in democratic institutions such as elections among European youth is evident. However, young people have, in fact, become even more politically engaged by choosing non-traditional forms of participation, via the Internet, over conventional acts of voting.

Only about half of the young adults in Bosnia and Herzegovina (B-H) participated in that country’s 2014 general election, while predictions for turnout in this year’s local elections are even lower. Most young Bosnians and Herzegovinians do not believe that elections can bring about change, surveys show.

The countries of the European Union (EU) are not very different, with the younger generation of citizens turning away from the polling booth in great numbers. The turnout among youth in the 2014 EU elections was only 28 percent, while in the majority of countries not more than 60 percent of young people used their voting right in the last national elections. Almost 70 percent of young EU citizens believe their vote cannot make any difference.

But although the lack of trust in democratic institutions among European youth is evident, young people have, in fact, become more politically engaged by choosing non-traditional forms of participation, via the Internet, over conventional acts of voting.

In late 2013, immediately after the news that B-H students would not be able to participate in the Erasmus+ Program was published in B-H media, thousands of young people from across the country signed an e-petition against the decision, blogged, and shared information on social media and – joined the protests. The pressure created was successful and soon enough – the decision was reversed. 

Blogs, online discussions, boycotts, and e-petitions are only some of the online-based ways in which new generations of youth increasingly express their political stands and take action. 

Recent attempts in some EU countries to boost participation in elections, such as the introduction of Internet voting in Estonia, have shown that the system of holding elections over the Internet has not significantly increased voter turnout.

Estonia is the first country in the world where citizens have used remote Internet voting in municipal, national, and European elections, but young people seem not to be too impressed. The data shows that higher turnout is correlated with higher use of Internet voting in the municipal and national elections, but there is no evidence that internet voting has led to higher turnout in the European elections. 

On the other hand, the Finnish model of online legislative “crowdsourcing”, which includes drafting laws based on citizens’ online requests, has proven to be a successful tool for engaging young people in decision making. While less than half of the Finnish electorate younger than 40 chooses to vote, many more tend to engage in pushing for political changes on the Internet.

A constitutional change in 2012 made it possible for Finnish citizens to propose a bill to the parliament through a mechanism known as the “citizen initiative”, which allows citizens to develop legislative amendments and comment on them on the Internet. A reason behind creating the citizen initiative system was to increase citizens’ involvement in decision making and thus enhance the legitimacy of Finland’s political system: to make people feel that they could make a difference. The same sex marriage legislation of 2014 was one of the pieces of “crowdsourced” legislation that went to the Finnish parliament. 

The topic of low turnout of young voters in B-H and elsewhere in Europe has been widely discussed in policy studies and analyses over the last decade. Some reports have analyzed turnout and nonattendance rates in different countries drawing a parallel between different socio-economic factors affecting such statistics, while many others have listed apathy, passivity, and inactivity as the main reasons for low participation by young people in elections, and in politics in general.

But most of them have failed to look into the expanding net of Internet-based activities of youth across Europe, which young people regard as being a more powerful way to influence political agendas and change legislation than are elections.

Contrary to the general belief that young people are apathetic and indifferent, the “I click, therefore I am” is regarded as a new motto for a newly-wired generation, and it is revolutionizing the idea of youth participation in political decisions.

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