Three years ago, Michael Sani was a 27-year-old teacher who had never voted in an election.
Today, he is the managing director of Bite The Ballot, a social enterprise he co-founded to address the stark lack of young people voting in Britain.
In the 2010 General Election, only 44 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds voted, the lowest turnout of all age demographics. Even if they wanted to cast a vote on polling day, more than half of 18-24 year-olds could not, because they hadn’t registered to vote and were not on the electoral register.
Over the past three years, Bite The Ballot (BTB) has been working in schools, youth clubs, colleges and youth offending institutes and has registered more than 15,000 young people to vote.
How does BTB get young people interested in the dreaded, ‘P’ word?
‘We don’t use the word “politics” until we find common ground,’ said Sani, fresh from delivering a BTB workshop at Tapton School in Sheffield (attended by deputy prime minister Nick Clegg) that resulted in 43 out of 45 students registering to vote.
‘We talk about issues young people relate to like the educational maintenance allowance (EMA) being cut, youth clubs closing, how expensive travel is, university tuition fees being tripled – everyone has an opinion,’ he added.
‘Then we play a couple of games: the second game, Show Me The Money, gets young people thinking about the country’s budget – we get them to divide up the money but there’s not enough of it to go round, so difficult decisions have to be made. It gets across that if you’re not part of the conversation you’re going to be left out.’
Sani illustrates this by highlighting the concessions governments make towards the demographic that vote the most – pensioners. ‘Ninety-six per cent of over 65s are registered to vote and there’s an inherent link between voter registration and policies,’ he said. ‘There’s a reason the winter fuel allowance, free bus passes, free eye tests and free prescriptions aren’t taken away – politicians fear being punished at the ballot box.’
After BTB visited her school in South London last summer, Tenielle (16), has been bitten by the politics bug.
‘I didn’t think politics concerned me, it was for my mum and dad, and old people – not my generation,’ she said. ‘BTB explained how youth loses out because we’re not registered to vote – after that, me and my classmates became more interested in politics and who’s responsible for our area.
‘We found out who our local MP is and got him down to school and asked him questions. It was an amazing opportunity to speak to an actual MP, although he didn’t answer our questions properly and just rearranged what we said, which is what politicians do.’
Tenielle registered to vote when she turned 16, and can vote in European, local, General and by-elections when she is 18.
In an effort to ramp up the numbers of young people registering to vote, BTB has established National Voter Registration Day (#NVRD), taking place on February 5 each year. To register to vote, you have to be 16 or over. The inaugural #NVRD is supported by the National Union of Students, Asda, Teach First, Centrepoint Parliament, the Citizenship Foundation, London Zoo and youth broadcaster SB.TV, with ambassadors including singers Tinie Tempah and Eliza Doolittle.
‘We chose February 5 because of its historical importance,’ said Sani. ‘It’s the date of the 1832 Great Reform Act which introduced voter registration and expanded voting – albeit to rich men.
‘We’d like it to be become a rite of passage for all 16-year-olds – to register to vote – which means you claim your identity and become part of Britain’s democratic system and start your credit rating.
‘We’ve come a long way since 1832 but not far enough. If we can get young people registered to vote, it’s the start of a life-long journey and it can reignite our democracy. It’s easy to say we’re the mother of all parliaments, but our sails haven’t been out in the wind for a long time, we haven’t been able to inspire our young people to participate.’
Jamal Edwards, 23, is the entrepreneur who founded game-changingdigital entertainment platform SB.TV after picking up a video camera when he was 16 to film his favourite MCs rapping, before posting the footage on YouTube. He said his interest in politics is growing.
‘I never thought politics affected me but Bite The Ballot has broken it down in a way that I’ve been able to understand and, as much as I put out music, I have a responsibility to put out positive messages too,’ he said. ‘I’m interested in issues affecting young people I see around me – like unemployment and learning, at school we didn’t do anything about entrepreneurship, which is what I’m into and that’s all down to politics.’
Sani feels it’s too easy to label young people ‘apathetic’.
He said: ‘How can you be apathetic unless you’ve been told all you need to know and made an informed decision? So many young people don’t know what the electoral register is – I didn’t know until I was 27.
‘We don’t have a democracy that works for all of us and if we’re talking about changing that, it begins in classrooms, youth clubs and community centres – the 2015 General Election would be far more interesting if young people were registered to vote.’
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