Thursday 4 February 2010

Electoral apathy, young people and unionists

Evidence shows that older people are more likely to vote than young people. In the 2007 Assembly election research shows that turnout was highest among those aged 55 and over (79%) but fell to 40% of those aged 18-24 years old and to 54% among 25-34 year-olds.

This clearly has some consequences for the votes received by the two main political blocks in Northern Ireland, because the older cohorts are more Protestant (and thus unionist) than the younger, more Catholic (and thus more nationalist) cohorts.

At the time of the 2001 Census, 64.9% of those aged 55 and over were from the Protestant community (Census table s306, Religion or Religion brought up in), whereas only 34.1% were from the Catholic community. However, at the younger ages the balance was different; of those aged 25-34 the Protestant community percentage was 51.2% against 45.3% for the Catholic community, and at ages 18-24 the Protestant community had dropped to 46.5%, while the Catholic community was now in the majority, at 50.1%.

So the Protestant community (and thus unionism) enjoys an 'age advantage' in the electorate. They form a greater proportion of the higher-turnout group.

One of the reasons why older people have a higher turnout is that they are more likely to be registered. Research done by PricewaterhouseCooper for the Electoral Commission shows that older people are more likely to be registered to vote in the first place.

The research looked at the electoral register in December 2007, and found that significantly higher proportions of people in oder cohorts were registered than in younger cohorts:

The corollary, of course, was that the un-registered were over-represented amongst younger people:

In most Westminster constituencies the rate of registration for those aged 60+ was over 90%, while the rate of registration of those aged 18-19 ranged from 25% in South Belfast to 80% in Fermanagh and South Tyrone – with an average of 59%. The second most common reason given for not voting in the 2007 Assembly elections was 'I wasn't registered to vote' – a reason given by 16% of all non-voters.

So even if parties manage to enthuse their community bases coming up to an election, those who are not registered still cannot vote. And since they are disproportionately young they are also disproportionately Catholic and nationalist.

The research showed that around 10-11% of potential voters are un-registered, but these do not have the same community profile as the electorate. Because younger people are more often un-registered, the age profile of the total registered population is skewed in favour of the older age-groups. While people aged 60+ were 25.2% of the entire population (over 18), they comprised 28.0% of the registered voters. Likewise, those aged 45-59 were 24.9% of the potential voters, but 25.5% of the registered voters.

So unionism has a double age advantage. Its has an advantage is the group that is both more registered, and turns out more.

Yet, curiously, its 'community vote' – i.e. the combined unionist vote in 2007 – was lower than its share of the electorate, rather than higher, as logic would seem to imply. In 2001 unionism's potential electorate (all Protestant and Other Christian (including Christian related)) amounted to 56.2% of the electorate, but the proportion of the vote in 2007 that went to unionist candidates was 48.7%. Even if a generous proportion of the Alliance score (5.2%) and the 'others' (3.6%) is added to the unionist total, it does not reach the figure that unionism would expect even if turnout rates were standard across all ages.

Nationalism, with a standardised turnout rate, could expect to equal the 41.5% of the Catholic community (according to the 2001 Census) – yet the nationalist vote was 42.6% of the total.

If allowance is made for the age-specific registration rates and age-specific turnout rates then unionism ought to have been able to achieve over 58% of the vote, while nationalism would struggle to reach 41%.

So what happened?

Constituencies that are overwhelmingly unionist did tend to have a low turnout rate in 2007: East Belfast 59.2%, East Antrim 52.7%, Lagan Valley 59.2%, North Down 53.0%, Strangford 53.6%. It seems that while there is a measured age-specific difference in turnout, nobody has dared to ask whether there is a clear community-specific difference in turn-out. It seems that the high turnout rates amongst old people are masking an even higher turnout rate amongst older nationalists, and the low turnout rates amongst young people are masking an even lower turnout rate amongst young unionists.

The implications are that more unionists than nationalists find politics a turn-off, or do not consider than the available choice represents their views. The two most common reasons for not voting in 2007 (apart from not being registered) were: 'I'm not interested in politics' (29%) and 'Can't trust politicians to keep their promises' (13%). 'No point in voting as it was obvious who would win' – an obvious reason in majority unionist areas, was in fact cited by only 6% of the non-voters.

So it seems that the strength of feeling for unionism, and for unionist candidates, is not as high as many would like to think. The image of unionism as monolithic, with its supporters implacably opposed to any change in the status quo, may be wrong. The view that Protestants could be counted on to vote en masse for a unionist outcome, either in an election or in a referendum, may also be wrong. On the contrary, it seems to be nationalists who are more determined to achieve their objectives through the ballot box. And as their numbers at the ballot box increase, they may achieve electoral superiority even before they achieve numerical superiority.

For all the tough talking of unionist politicians and the unionist media, it seems that the ordinary Protestant in the street is simply not as interested in unionism as previously thought.


Burt S. said...

The writing is on the wall for Unionism in Northern Ireland; at this point even the Unionists know that Irish nationalists are inexorably reaching their goals through the ballot box. Godspeed.

Anonymous said...


Just looking at the 2005 westminister election and if you include Deeny and SEA WP then you are talking of a Nationalist perecentage of 44percent.

Do you believe that Eirigi can motivate Republicans to come out to vote and thus increase the Nationalist/Republican community vote share. Nearly all sides of both communities are representated here in this election.

Another factor could be the difference in education. More RC going to University and espically so when comparing the two WC communities. The link between Education and voting is quite strong in most countries.

Any first predictions for the 2010 elections?

Regards Jim.

Anonymous said...

Can not a greater effort be made to encourage registration and to 'get out' the youth vote?