With almost five weeks still remaining until EU referendum day, students - and the population generally - could be forgiven for suffering from referendum fatigue and information overload. We have faced a barrage of news and advertising, a plethora of (sometimes questionable) facts and stats and a chorus of politicians and public figures speaking out in favour or against remaining in the EU. While the news has been dominated by fierce battles between Remainers and Brexiteers, the big question is: how many people will actually turn out to vote on 23 June?
Much has already been said about whether young people and students will turn out to vote. And what impact, if any, the date of the referendum - during university holidays and clashing with the Glastonbury festival - will have on the overall outcome. This is why Universities UK commissioned YouthSight to conduct a poll to see how referendum-ready students are across the UK. They surveyed over 2,000 students eligible to vote on 23 June.
The results of the poll, published today, highlight some good news, and some bad news. On a positive note, the poll suggests that many students are interested in the outcome of the referendum. Almost three quarters (72%) of students think the outcome of the referendum will have a significant impact on their futures. More worryingly, many students (63%) did not know what date the referendum was taking place and many are registered to vote in the wrong place. The poll revealed that only half (56%) of students registered only at their term-time address were likely to be there on polling day. A quarter (25%) who said they are registered only at their university address, confirmed they won't be there on 23 June. This means that many students will be registered and think they have taken the correct steps needed in order to vote, but - if they are registered in the wrong place or for the wrong type of vote - they won't be able to have a say.
The potential low turnout of student voters should be of profound concern to those on both sides of the EU referendum debate. The decision that voters make on 23 June will shape the future of the United Kingdom and the future direction of our economy and society.
How did we get to this position, where hundreds of thousands of students could miss out on their chance to participate in a hugely important decision for the UK? There are two main reasons for this: bad timing and recent changes to electoral registration rules.
While we have known for over a year that a referendum on EU membership was going to be held, the precise date was only confirmed in February this year. The government decided to plump for a date in late June. A date which, for most students, is outside normal university term-time.
On top of this, there are relatively new rules on the way in which people can register to vote. In 2014, a new system of electoral registration was introduced whereby students are required to register to vote individually rather than by a 'head of household' who registers all occupants at an address. This change meant that universities could no longer register their residential students collectively, and it was over to students to take individual actions themselves. Some missed, or ignored, the repeated calls for them register; others fell at the first hurdle by not having their National Insurance number to hand (although some councils have now agreed to accept student numbers as ID verification).
At this late stage, is there anything that can be done to make sure students do not miss out on their chance to vote? I think so. Huge efforts have been made by universities and colleges across the UK to increase student voter registration numbers over recent months. And these efforts are proving a significant success. However, students registered for earlier votes such as the May elections are not automatically set up to vote in the EU referendum. The date means many will need to re-register if they are going to be at a different address. To help, Universities UK, the National Union of Students and the Association of Colleges have begun a major EU referendum registration drive at campuses and colleges across the UK.
The main message is to get students to think about where they are likely to be on 23 June 2016 and, if they think are going to be unable to get to their polling station, to consider applying for a postal vote. If they can get to a polling station, students need to think about whether they will be at their term-time or home/parents' address, or somewhere else entirely. Students are being encouraged to register, re-register or apply for a postal vote, depending on their circumstances. It takes just two minutes to register to vote online and students can register at a new address quickly and easily. This can be done, fuss-free at: www.gov.uk/register-to-vote A student who has a permanent home address and a term-time address can be lawfully registered at both addresses - although of course can only cast a vote in one place. If you're not sure where you'll be - register to vote in both places or better still, get a postal vote.
While today's poll findings are worrying - with just over a month to go until the vote - there is still time to take action. The key date is the 7th June, the date by which everyone has to be registered to vote if they want to take part in the referendum.
While not all students will be heading for the fields of Somerset for the Glastonbury Festival (22 - 26 June), it helps as a reminder for students to think about where they are likely to be on 23 June, and whether they are registered at the correct address. If those on holiday or festival-goers want to vote, they will need to think ahead and apply for a postal or proxy vote.
There are almost two million UK students eligible to vote in the referendum, and they could play a big role in the outcome. Whichever side wins, their mandate will be stronger if it is based on a high turnout with strong participation from younger, as well as older voters. I would urge students to get registered and get referendum-ready. They are, after all the future of the UK and among the generation of voters that will live with the consequences of referendum - whatever the outcome - for the longest.
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