The participation of young people in Irish politics has been in critical decline over recent years. One third of people aged from 18 to 25 are not even registered to vote, and the turnout from those who are is characteristically poor. The core problem is the youth feel alienated and disenfranchised from politics. SmartVote is one initiative that aims to improve interaction and voter turnout, and reboot young people’s connection to the political system.
The College Tribune interviewed two of the SmartVote team, Keith Moore and Gordon Rose. The SmartVote.ie system is a voting assistance application, that aims to help people know what candidates are running in their constituency, and which candidates best match their preferred policies. “You answer questions that are relative to the elections, and your answers are matched up with candidate’s answers. It’s just a way to make it easy for people to make an informed voting decision.”
The app, Know Your Candidate is a short questionnaire that provides a new way for people to get involved in politics; “it’s quick, it’s accessible, and it’s aimed at the 18 to 25s.” It’s through this online-savvy approach that the team is attempting to pioneer new avenues from which young people can engage with politics on their own terms.
SmartVote recently ran a pilot scheme in conjunction with the UCDSU elections for their Know Your Candidate App. Both Keith and Gordon were overwhelming pleased with the uptake during the trial run, and will take it as a stepping-stone going forward. “It was a really big success. We had about 2,000 hits on the website; people found it a very useful way to engage in the election”. The figures and feedback from post-election surveys SmartVote conducted in UCD are also positive for the burgeoning political startup. 87% of those who voted said they used SmartVote, and 18% of those said they wouldn’t have voted if not for SmartVote. But most importantly going forward for the team was the fact that 83% of voters said they would definitely use a similar app for the General Election.
Yet SmartVote has plans to reinvigorate politics beyond the ballot box and elections. In what could be described as Phase 2 they are developing an app to connect voters to their representative TDs during the Dáil term – with an interactive two way polling app. Voters will be able to keep track of legislation, and politicians will be able to view voters preferences on policy; and also ask voters who use the app their opinion. “We found there was a real disconnect between the young voter and the politician, so we tried to find a way to open up a new route of communication. You’ll easily know which politicians are looking out for you, and you’ll be able to interact with what they’re doing”. This two-way interactive polling app is SmartVote.ie’s Direct Democracy platform.
The conundrum getting young people involved in politics and bridging the democratic deficit between voters and the Dáil is two-fold. Young people do not vote because they feel their issues are ignored, and politicians fail to prioritize youth issues or policies because the young demographics don’t vote. SmartVote therefore is attempting to break this cycle and get 18 to 25 year olds mobilized and informed in voting.
Despite a perception of the current political system as one resistant or hesitant to change, SmartVote is setting itself up to be beneficial to politicians as well. “The only people that would have any qualms as far as I can tell are [some] sitting politicians; who would benefit most from the status quo. I don’t think any politician is out to ignore people. There are genuine politicians out there, but they just haven’t found a way to connect to the youth, maybe this will help them.”
For SmartVote to be successful it will need a big uptake and input from youth people, and a high degree of interaction from the politicians themselves. The litmus test of this encouraging initiative will be how successful it is in generating an initial wave of support from voters in actively using the app. But if SmartVote can get 100,000+ users, politicians will inevitably have to jump on the bandwagon – or face becoming obsolete.
SmartVote going forward will now take their Know Your Candidate system to the Carlow-Kilkenny by election in May, and then aim towards rolling it out for the General Election in 2016. Both Keith Moore and Gordon stressed the team is more than welcoming of anyone looking to get involved: “If anybody wants experience in the media or the political sphere, we are looking for volunteers to help us out”.
The enthusiastic and ambitious approach to engaging young people in politics is refreshing, but the success of the SmartVote.ie initiative will stand or fall on how many people it can get actively and frequently using the app.
“We want to be the household name for voting assistance applications in Ireland; we want to be the people that are keeping their finger on the pulse of the country – that’s the direction we’re going in.”