Voting and political awareness (amid exams)

Safya Khan-Ruf - 20 05 17

With its high student population, Cambridge has been an important focus for HOPE not hate’s voter registration campaign, running all this week and backed by the National Union of Teachers and supported by ice cream company Ben & Jerry’s.

HOPE not hate’s research has revealed a worrying drop-off in students from the electoral roll in towns and cities up and down the UK.

Nowhere is this more apparent than the university city of Cambridge, where – according to head of Cambridge City Council, Lewis Herbert – around half of all students are not registered to vote.

HOPE not hate’s own research has revealed that 15,000 people (or -15%), mostly students, have dropped from the electoral roll since the last general election. Mostly to blame is a change to the way we all register to vote.

This change included a shift from one person, usually a parent, registering the entire household to every person needing to register individually. At the same time, universities could no longer automatically register students. Add to this the fact that young people are a very transient population, often renting and unaware they must register again if they have moved, and you have the recipe for a toxic democratic deficit.

Voter registration at Cambridge

Read ‘Who Will Decide Britain’s Future?’

As we set up a voter registration (VR) stand by the Cambridge campus canteen of Anglia Ruskin University, the telling signs of an exam period are evident. Exhausted students travel in packs, with dazed expressions and tightly grasping their notes. However, it’s a pleasant surprise to see how politically conscious and engaged they appear to be.

Strategic Voting

Cambridge is a marginal seat and many of its students are aware of the impact their vote could have on the university city. Under electoral rules, students are allowed to register at both their home (permanent) and university (temporary) addresses.

One student, Theo, had already registered when he passed by the HOPE not hate stand. “I’ve already registered in Kent, at my parents’, but I heard Cambridge was a marginal seat so I’m voting here now,” he said. Others informed us they were planning to use postal votes because they were not sure where they would be on the day, like Fatima who said she might be abroad but definitely wants to vote.

A tool used by many young people is, which compares student home and term time addresses. The website, created as part of the #TurnUp voter registration campaign, identifies whether either of two addresses are in swing seat constituencies and recommends where the person’s vote is “worth more”. According to the creator, Matt Morley, the website has been used by over 30,000 people since it launched last week.

Although aware of the importance of their vote in Cambridge, other students told us they were planning to vote at their permanent address.

“I think my vote can make more of a difference back home. Plus I can have conversations and persuade people to vote back in The Valleys, who are in desperate need of some hope,” said Tom, who studies in Cambridge but comes from south Wales.

International students appeared most uncertain about the situation, with many unsure whether they could vote. While EU citizens cannot vote (but can register) in this General Election, students from Commonwealth countries can. Chimezie, from Nigeria, was pleasantly surprised he could have a voice in this election because he always votes in elections back home.

Qualifying Commonwealth citizens can vote in the General Election
Politically aware

Many of the students approaching us had already registered and seemed politically aware of the situation.

James was on his way to an exam, but assured us he had signed up and was planning to check the party manifestos as soon as he was done with his revision. “I really care about jobs and immigration, so I’m going to see what the main parties say about this,” he said.

Tom, who is voting in Wales, said: “It’s not just about the near future for me. We need to know what to do fifty years from now, not just next year. Politicians are just focusing on the near future and selling off our industries to foreign companies, instead of coming up with a long term industrial strategy.”

Michael was worried about the Conservatives’ plans to stop people from voting if they didn’t own a passport or driving licence, in what was described as a bid to tackle fraud. “This is going to affect millions who can’t afford IDs, minorities, trans people and migrants,” the student said.

Most expressed their frustrations at the timing of the snap election called by Theresa May last month. “There’s exams, and it’s also going to be Ramadan soon, it’s just such bad timing,” Emily told us.

HOPE not hate at the Cambridge campus of Anglia Ruskin University

Grace Anderson, Education Officer at Anglia Ruskin University and member of the National Union for Students (NUS), has been campaigning to increase voter registration awareness since the election was called.

“It’s been hard, we haven’t received a lot of support, the Cabinet Office only sent these voting resources today,” she said waving at the I’ve registered to vote badges which had arrived three days before the voter registration deadline (22 May).

Anderson told us today was the last day students would be in numbers at the Cambridge campus for their exams, so she welcomed our support. “We are aiming for 500 registrations overall,” she said.

Anderson will be working with Cambridgeshire HOPE not hate on election day, 8 June, to ensure students turn out and vote. “We’re going to take groups from the university campus directly to the polling stations,” she said.

A good day

“It was great to see Cambridge students engaged and aware of their power, especially when 1 in 9 residents are not on the register,” said Elisabeth Pop, HOPE not hate’s Voter Registration Campaign Manager.

“This week was our VR week of action, which we have been pushing hard in communities and across social media… But the job is not yet done,” she warned.

She added: “From 23 May starts the get-out-the-vote (GOTV) operation, which in our democratic engagement campaign is as important as voter registration, certainly if democracy is to work for everyone.”

Indeed, voter registration is only one part of the problem. At the 2015 General Election, only 43% of 18-24-year-olds voted compared with 78% of 65+ year olds (IPSOS Mori, 2015). Thus GOTV is crucial among the young, including students.

We spent three hours registering young people with appropriately themed rock music blaring over us.

Chatting with politically-aware youth, some of whom were already registered and weren’t only approaching for the ice cream vouchers (which had been donated by Ben & Jerry’s to encourage democratic engagement), it was clear examination period had not robbed them of their willingness to get their voice heard.

Voter registration at Cambridge


Register to Vote (Government site)


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