How to Boost Youth Political Participation During COVID-19


A young woman learns how to cast a ballot at a mock polling station booth in August 2019 as part of effort to mobilize young voters ahead of Myanmar's 2020 elections.

by Ashley Law

Young people under 30 comprise more than 50 percent of the global population, but their voices are often underrepresented in decision-making. Effects from COVID-19 are further removing young leaders from opportunities to engage in political and public affairs and in COVID-19 decision-making due to social distancing and stay-at-home orders. School closures are causing a democratic learning gap in school-age children and youth who were actively learning about democratic principles through formal, school-based civic education programs. Young activists can no longer gather in person for large social movements or rallies. Political apathy may also be on the rise in young voters, who already lacked trust in their governments and feel that these same leaders failed to appropriately respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Young people with internet access are displaying their resilience through digital activism; as a result, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) has shifted its programming to meet young leaders in online spaces. In Ukraine and Bangladesh, IFES is working with young people to equip them with tools to combat COVID-19 disinformation. Moreover, the CEPPS Youth Democracy and Governance Cross-Sectoral Initiative has pivoted to conducting only virtual events leading to tremendous global youth engagement. Electoral authorities and leaders must do the same and not ignore COVID-19’s negative impact on young people’s civic rights and their ability to exercise these rights.

Globally, many election management bodies (EMBs) and political leaders have decided to postpone elections to keep citizens safe from contracting the virus. In closing spaces where democracy is backsliding, political leaders are using safety mechanisms to limit democratic participation, further exclude youth from decision-making processes such as voting and quiet dissenting voices. For example, young people tend to engage in more informal participation mechanisms like protests that drive social movements and mobilize large groups in public spaces around a cause, often contradicting a ruling party’s platform. Stay-at-home orders, curfews and lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic restrict mobility and voters’ ability to gather for rallies or influence policy decisions alongside elected leaders, which is already a challenge given that young people are often not represented at the tables where policies are created and finalized. Additionally, young people who reach the age of enfranchisement during a delayed election period but do not have the opportunity to register for the newly scheduled election date face another layer of exclusion from political participation.

EMBs and electoral authorities should be mindful of the challenges young people are facing when participating in political life as a result of COVID-19.

Moreover, young people who have been economically impacted during the pandemic lack the income to apply for the ID card needed to register to vote in some countries. For young people who can apply for ID cards, they face an access barrier where the appropriate department has been closed due to safety concerns. With the heavy reliance on digital communication, young people in rural communities with poor infrastructure may lack access to receiving election-related information about voting, thereby reducing awareness of where and how to vote on Election Day.

EMBs and electoral authorities should be mindful of the challenges young people are facing when participating in political life as a result of COVID-19 and should consider the following recommendations to bolster young people’s participation.

  • EMBs should use this time to build trust and meaningful relationships with young voters. Through activities such as outreach surveys, regular quizzes or polls or the development of a virtual young leaders’ working group, EMBs can actively engage and glean insight into drivers that motivate young people to vote. EMBs can also incorporate young people’s feedback into election strategies to better tailor them to young voters. Where low internet penetration creates an engagement barrier, EMBs could connect with traditional media outlets to share key election-information and spotlight young leaders’ sound clips or quotes in newspapers and radio spots to motivate other young voters to participate in upcoming elections.
  • EMBs should connect with young activists who are mobilizing their peers online to coordinate voter education and get-out-the-vote campaigns. Through virtual rallies or town halls, young people can engage with EMBs on issues targeting young voters and better understand voting procedures, which is especially important for voters casting a ballot for the first time during a pandemic.
  • EMBs should connect with young leaders in other development sectors who are disseminating safety information about COVID-19 and providing resources to community members. EMBs can integrate election-related materials into other sectors’ activities targeting outreach toward young people, including at health testing sites or food banks to ensure election-related materials are reaching young people who face infrastructure barriers.
  • EMBs should connect with educators who are using e-learning platforms to continue education efforts. EMBs and educators can collaborate on ways to incorporate election-related information into lesson plans, particularly for countries where elections will be conducted in the COVID-19 context to ensure first-time voters are aware of how to participate and stay safe while doing so.
  • EMBs should consider sending election-related messages targeting first-time voters through various media outlets including traditional means such as text messaging, newspaper, television and radio ads and through online platforms like webpages, social media, ads and digital apps.
  • EMBs should consider options to extend the voter registration period within the legal framework to ensure that all young voters who have reached the age of enfranchisement during the delayed timeframe are able to participate when the election date is set. EMBs should also consider amending registration processes to allow young people to register one year before they reach the age of enfranchisement as a proactive measure.
  • EMBs should also work with the agencies responsible for processing ID cards needed for registration to ensure young voters can receive these and are empowered to cast ballots on Election Day.

Despite the challenges caused by COVID-19, young people across the world are taking to the frontlines to combat its effects.

Despite the challenges caused by COVID-19, young people across the world are taking to the frontlines to combat the effects of COVID-19 by using online platforms to connect with families and friends and to rally and raise awareness to counter disinformation. EMBs and decision-makers should capitalize on this energy and provide opportunities for young people to contribute to not only designing and informing strategies to overcome challenges to political participation posed by COVID-19, but also empower young leaders and activists to lead and carry out these initiatives.

Ashley Law is a youth specialist at IFES.

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