Beware the Youth Voter

As Government parties scramble to figure out what they did wrong, many still don’t appreciate the seismic shift caused by the increase in voting by young people

“I feel that the youth turnout probably will exceed the average turnout nationally.”

Kevin Donoghue, the Union of Students in Ireland president, has just come from the count in the RDS in Donneybrook to the USI offices in Ringsend. It has already it has become clear that no party has won the day.

“I think there was huge engagement,” Donoghue says. “I’ve been doing voter registration drives and voter registration campaigns with USI for a couple of years and I’ve never seen anything like it before.”

Discussions about the formation of a government are expected to take weeks. Many party strategists say that a lot of soul-searching is needed. The overriding feeling among Fine Gael and Labour members is shock. None of them saw this coming.

Rise in Youth Voting

It all becomes a little clearer when you factor in the change in voting patterns.

Thinkhouse youth communication agency interviewed 500 18-35 year olds and found that 83% intended to vote in the election, well above the 65.2% overall turnout and up from the 71% of young people who self-reported voting in 2011.

In April 2015 it was reported that there were 120,000 young people not registered to vote. By January 2016 this number was reduced by two thirds, and others queued outside Garda stations to register in the last few weeks.

Donoghue described the latest registration drives.

The first time I did a voter registration drive we registered 60 people over five or six hours and it was very hard… Last week we registered 1,300 people over the same period of time. And anyone who wasn’t registered was pulled up to the table by their friends to get registered. So it was a very significant change over a short period of time.

He says that the rise in youth voters can be attributed to two things; the marriage equality referendum and frustration with the lack of engagement with youth issues.

However, the engagement by young voters with the political process doesn’t seem to have been noticed by the main political parties.

Lack of Engagement With Youth Issues

Keith Moore, co-founder of, found that many of the youth issues were not discussed during the campaign.

“I think the Claire Byrne debate was the first time I heard student fees being mentioned… I’ve been in hustings all around the country in different colleges, and obviously it’s one of the main issues for them.” is an online site that matches voters up to the candidates which best represent their views. Users answered 30 questions on issues ranging from taxes, to university fees and hospital overcrowding. By the day of the election, over 200,000 people had taken the Smart Vote quiz.

Moore says that the questions chosen were broadly representative of what voters felt was important.

“We tested the questions in focus groups and had them reviewed by the top political scientists and journalists in the country… We didn’t actually make any of the questions ourselves.”

76% of SmartVote users thought low hour contracts should be outlawed. 53% of users thought that JobBridge should be abolished. And 89% of users said abortion should be allowed in cases of rape, incest or where the baby could not survive outside the womb.

However, many of the youth issues were not discussed and did not come up in the televised leaders’ debates.

Youth Vote Up for Grabs

Donoghue says he felt a bit like the Cassandra of Irish politics. “The youth vote is there to be engaged. We’ve been saying this for months and months in the lead up to the election.”

The overall result has been a shift away from establishment parties. No party is within 25 seats of reaching the magic number of 79. The only ‘winners’ have been the Green Party, who managed to up their number of TDs from 0 to 2, and the Independents. Fianna Fáil, who definitely improved on their 2011 result, are nowhere near back to their original support levels.

I asked Donoghue if what we saw was a protest vote from students.

I think it’s less of a protest vote and more of a situation where people are seeking alternatives… I do think there’s definitely a frustration with establishment parties in terms of dealing with specific issues. Certain smaller parties have benefitted as a result of larger parties’ failure to engage with young people on their issues.

A lot of people will be asking themselves ‘How do we build from here?’ I think that one of the things they could do is to engage a little bit more with young people.

Donoghue says the three main reforms the USI want to see implemented are the holding of a Repeal the 8th referendum on abortion, free third level education and more decent work opportunities.

Young people in particular are sick of being told that JobBridge and unpaid internships are a good way to build their experience and provide a good opportunity because they don’t… I was told growing up that if you put in a day’s work you’ll receive a day’s pay. Now for some reason we need to be grateful if we put in the day’s work and we receive the experience.

Whatever about the uncertain outcome of the election, Donoghue says that we should celebrate the fact that this generation of young people are engaged in our political process.

“It’s positive to see that so many people were so engaged. They wanted to get informed, they wanted to make a proper decision. It wasn’t a case of ‘whatever I do, I’m not voting for them’. It was very much a case of ‘this is what I believe in. Who is running who believes in that?’”

“They recognise they need to be part of any solution for a better Ireland.”


Author: Liz O'Malley

Freelance journalist, sometime law student, political junkie, pasta addict.

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