Helping young people to be informed, confident voters

Cartoon city with title reading 'On the Fence'

An interactive online tool that boosted youth voter turnout at the 2014 and 2017 election is being re-launched for the postponed 2020 General Election. For the first time the tool will offer a te reo Māori option.

Massey University’s Design+Democracy Project designed On the Fence to help young people to become more informed, confident participants in the democratic process— and to turn-out and vote in next month’s general election and increase voter turnout. Tools like On the Fence will be especially important during this year’s COVID-disrupted campaign, and more so if parts of New Zealand are under lockdown.
On the Fence is a game-like questionnaire that guides people towards finding a values match for them among the political parties. It builds on the success of the On the Fence interactive tools developed for the two previous general elections, which independent research found made the largest difference to youth voter turnout. It goes live today.
The Design+Democracy Project has been exploring how design might contribute to facilitating young people’s engagement with political processes. They develop bi-partisan tools that help young undecided and first-time voters engage directly with political issues, in this case matching their personal values with those of political parties.
Project Director and Senior Lecturer Karl Kane says young people (18-24) have rejected many aspects of adversarial party politics, and their participation rates are consistently around 30 per cent below those aged over 50. Barely a third of those young people who are enrolled vote, and many more are not enrolled.
“Rangatahi respond best to dialogue, collaboration and deliberation, and the Left versus Right paradigm is not a natural fit for them; they are more interested in issues, solutions, and policies that are more values-based,” Mr Kane says. “Many young people don’t think politics addresses things they see as most important, and they lack confidence to know whether their vote is aligned with their values.”
Tim Parkin, Senior Research Designer for the project, says the appeal of On the Fence is that it is in language that is accessible to a youth audience, has an approachable and game-like look and feel that is fun and shareable.
“An invaluable innovation to On the Fence in 2017 was the use of the ‘slider scale’ question to show just how much political decisions are a balancing act and a matter of differing priorities,” Mr Parkin says. “For each issue the participant is able to ‘find out more’ and understand the topic better.
“On the Fence’s point of difference is that it is the only interactive platform that specifically addresses the needs of young, undecided and first-time voters by helping them navigate the complexities of central government.”
The political parties involved— those with a sitting Member of Parliament or who polled over 0.5% leading-up to the Election —have been asked for direct input, and all have signed off on the questions within the tool and provided their own responses.  
Design researcher and Lecturer Tim Turnidge highlights “it is important that parties have responded to exactly the same questions as our users, allowing a direct comparison. This allows common ground to be found, and puts the parties and voters on the same level.”
Mr Kane says On the Fence is not only for digital natives. “While many established voters use it to test the test, we think electors of all ages will be interested to blindfold-test their political alignment. A values-based test can reveal a very different result. It is always healthy to test our assumptions and biases.”
In the lead-up to the 2017 general election On the Fence attracted over 237,000 unique users over four weeks. Of the first time voters, 78% said On the Fence improved their understanding of what Government does.
College of Creative Arts Pro Vice-Chancellor Professor Claire Robinson says Massey University wants to address the complex issues facing New Zealand in the 21st century. Key to this is to have people engaged in not only the conversations, but also democratic processes.
“Informing and engaging with young people is vital in contributing to the fabric of New Zealand’s future,” Professor Robinson says. “We believe that the issue of low voter turnout is not the sole responsibility of Government or councils. It is one that we all share as citizens.”
This election the Design+Democracy Project has also released Cannabis Convo:, another online interactive tool enabling people to explore the issues relating to the cannabis referendum and help them to be more informed participants.
On the Fence 2020 has had support from the Electoral Commission, and the McGuinness Institute.

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Toi Rauwhārangi
College of Creative Arts
Wellington, Aotearoa