A New Generation Gets a Vote and a Voice in Wales

16 year old first-time voters need to be educated in what – and how – our democracy works to avoid a missed opportunity, writes Rhydian Thomas.

As we mark the beginning of a new year, I think everyone is hoping the next twelve months will bring more good news and opportunities to celebrate than the last. 

Those interested in our democratic processes, already have one reason to be positive because this year in Wales more people can vote than ever before. For the first time, 16 and 17 year olds have the right to vote, meaning roughly 66,000 more young people will have a voice in the Senedd elections.  

This is a hugely important development in our democracy and in the history of the Senedd. 

But giving young people the vote is only the first step, ensuring that they are aware of their rights and know how to use them, is just as important. 

That’s why last summer the Electoral Commission launched a “Welcome to your vote” campaign. Its aim was to raise awareness among newly enfranchised groups of how to register and cast a vote with confidence. 

The forthcoming election may be unique given the public health situation, but the fundamentals are unchanged: all eligible voters must be on the electoral register and decide whether to vote in a polling station, by post or by proxy.

The role of the Electoral Commission is to promote public confidence in the democratic process and ensure its integrity. But we also believe we have a role to play in the education of current and future voters about our democracy, and this was supported by recent research. 

“Developing a generation of voters doesn’t happen overnight… it can take time for people of all ages to feel confident and informed about an election.”

If voters are interested early on, there’s an increased chance that they will be an engaged and active voter for their entire lives – and that’s something we want to build on.

To help achieve this, we created a new set of political literacy resources to educate young people about their vote and our wider democracy in Wales. 

It is split into two areas: one for young people, and another for educators. Both cover three modules – your vote, campaigning and how to vote. The site is interactive and contains videos, quizzes, handbooks and activities. 

Politics can be a difficult subject to talk about, but we want to show young people that it impacts everything around them. From how long they stay in education, to the rules of renting, from 5G availability, to how often bins are collected. The tools are intended to help teachers and students to feel more comfortable and knowledgeable talking about it. 

We know the impact of COVID-19 on educators and learning environments has been huge, perhaps leaving less space to cover political literacy in class, and many students have become fatigued with online learning. 

But, it goes without saying that developing a generation of voters doesn’t happen overnight, and truthfully, it can take time for people of all ages to feel confident and informed about an election. 

Whilst the pandemic has in many ways helped raise awareness of devolution across Wales, ensuring voters understand the distinction between the work of the Senedd and UK Parliament still remains a challenge. 

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We’ve included information about the responsibility of the Senedd and its Members as part of the education resources in the hope of helping to build this understanding in voters from a young age.

There is no simple solution to ensuring that voters always feel engaged in our democracy and political institutions, nor can one body or organisation be responsible for that alone. We believe partnership is key. 

We work with a range of government forums, democratic organisations, grassroots organisations, charities and community leaders to raise public awareness of electoral events and promote participation. 

We hope that for every person we reach with our voter messaging and resources, they will pass on what they learn to friends and family. So, as with all elections, in the run up to May, we are encouraging as many people as possible to get involved, get informed and use their vote. 

All eligible voters can register online in 5 minutes at gov.uk/registertovote.

All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

 

 

Rhydian Thomas is Head of the Electoral Commission in Wales.

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