In the run-up to the last general election, I was teaching in a school in Dartford. My boss at the time asked me if I was going to vote. I said, no, I don’t vote, politics doesn’t affect me. He couldn’t believe it. He made it real for me in just a couple of sentences. You drove here today, politics affects the road tax, it affects the petrol prices – you went out at the weekend and politics can determine whether that night club has a late license. All of a sudden I thought wow; why don’t I know this?
We started to ask around. A whole host of sixth formers weren’t registered and weren’t planning on participating. The reasons why were just unacceptable – I don’t understand politics, I don’t know how to vote, I don’t want to embarrass myself – reasons that shouldn’t exist in today’s society.
Michael Sani, Bite The Ballot
We began a project to look at these reasons and try and turn them into opportunities. We hosted a mock election to teach students how to vote, brought in MPs and MEPs, and looked at the benefits of being on the electoral register. And this stuff really felt easy – it was not rocket science.
People around the country heard what we were doing and asked us to get involved. We quickly realised that no one was doing this to the extent it should be done, with the young person in mind at all times. So what started as a school project began to grow and grow.
Engage and involve
I think most people are extremely political; they just don’t make the connection between the things they care about being politics. We’re saying to young people, if you register and become a huge part of the electoral roll, it’s going to be very difficult to ignore you. Politicians will ask; who are they going to vote for, what do they want? It is demand and supply – you create the demand and politics will have to supply it. A big influx of young voters would demand greater transparency in our political system, with more eyes looking and more people to ask difficult questions.
Our main aim is to make it easy to get engaged and involved. In today’s society effective engagement for the masses means going digital. It’s about creating content that focuses on issues and then offering people the opportunity to like, dislike, comment or share. But importantly it’s about relating online engagement to offline action.
Our methods work really well. In February, we coordinated the UK’s second annual National Voter Registration Day; 166,000 people registered to vote on the day alone, and 441,500 during the week, making it the world’s most successful digital voter registration campaign, ever.
I rate Russell Brand for coming out and sharing his views. Society needs more influencers and idols that stand up and tell us what they believe in, as it provokes us to have a view and share our opinion. One of the fundamental things we need to get right in our country is to talk – to feel that it’s OK to discuss politics on the bus to school or in the playground – to say I care about this, do you? What’s your view? What should be done about it? We’ve really got to step up as a country and use the tools and resources that are there for us, while being at the forefront of creating new tools to enhance the channels of communication. Yes they’re not promoted well and most people don’t have the upfront education on them, but they are there. That’s what we’re trying to do, bring these resources into an open forum and edit them where we can to make them a little bit more open, engaging and accessible. Ultimately, it’s about people participating and making use of them.
photography HARRY HITCHENS words WILL FERGUSON
Michael Sani is a social entrepreneur and former teacher who co-founded Bite The Ballot with the help of staff and students three weeks before the General Election in 2010. Bite The Ballot is a not for profit community interest company and is not affiliated with any political party. It aims to empower young people to speak up and act, to make their votes and opinions count, through campaigns including Leaders Live, National Voter Registration Drive and The Basics. Its successes include encouraging more than 500,000 young people to register to vote.
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