Getting the Young to Vote, One Kick at a Time

still from #Polertiek YouTube channel

still from #Polertiek YouTube channel



Getting the Young to Vote,
One Kick at a Time

by mick ter reehorst

        A bus filled with a restless television personality, a bunch of volunteers and a few cameras is driving down the highway on a regular Saturday in early February. Destination: a higher vocational education school in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Nothing all too remarkable, one might think.

Yet this bus, or rather the concept behind it, has shaken up the Dutch news last month. With this first school visit they are now kicking off their campaign to get first-time voters to participate in the upcoming parliamentary elections on March 15th.

      They don’t have explicit permission to go into the building and do their little show, but that is sort of part of the concept. So while the side of the bus rolls open to set up the music stage on the pavement, the frantic YouTube presenter, some volunteers and a bunch of cameras rush into the school and urge everyone to go outside. The classes are interrupted, the front desk looks baffled, and some teachers seem even seem a bit annoyed. Slowly, a crowd starts to gather in front of the school and while more and more students come out - somewhat reluctantly and confused - the DJ asks the crowd of some 100 students: “who here is feeling like a little party?”

    The reason for this party is not what most people - especially not adolescent youth - would come out for. But as the organizers themselves say: ‘What isn’t party-worthy about our most basic democratic right?’ It’s a question that is asked by the people behind the campaign, yet in a rhetorical way. De Stembus 2017 (the VotingBus, where the Dutch word also means voting booth or polling station) is going to raise money from drive around the Netherlands to get some 800.000 first time young voters to “vote the shit out of it”. So now, presenter Tim Hofman stands on the makeshift stage coming out of the bus, and addresses the crowd of young students: “We celebrate the birthday of our king, we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, we celebrate the first day of the year, but we never celebrate the fact that we can fucking vote!

     He then asks them who is going to vote on March 15th. About half of the hands go up and some cheers go around, but some students are looking at each other to gauge if it’s OK to raise your hand for something like this. “When I yell, please yell back, otherwise it’s fucking embarrassing”, Hofman says, and asks again: “who is going to vote on March 15th?”

         This initiative started off innocently, with a tweet by Gosse Bouma, an Amsterdam-based cinematographer, on January 29th. “Feel like starting a movement to get everyone aged 18 - 25 to the voting booth”, Bouma tweeted. Within a few hours, much of the Dutch social medium was ablaze with supportive twitter, and Tim Hofman, a popular television presenter and video blogger was one of the @twitterhandles to express his support. Hofman presents a program on national television and is the brain (or the beauty?) behind the YouTube series #BOOS (#ANGRY) & #polertiek (#politics), where he takes disillusioned and angry youth to an organization, company or person to express their anger with an issue. He is very popular with millennials and generation Z, or whatever you want to call the next generations. One thing is for certain, he is able to reach the young voters, as the outburst of media attention in the days after the Twitter-conversation between the seven initiators showed. Within days, they gathered a following well into the tens of thousands on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. And their target audience was not resistant to the call, as thousands of young Dutch echoed and shared their catchy videos and tweets. Shortly after, Hofman went on the most popular national talkshow and said: “young people need a kick under their ass and should go vote.” It rang on in the media for a few days.

#BOOS (#ANGRY) with Geert Wilders and Henk Krol. Try putting on auto-generated English subtitles for even more fun.

But why would it work better now?

Every election cycle, you can hear the same arguments. But campaigns like de Stembus try to counter the notion sthat young people are apathetic when it comes to political participation and voting, that they are lazy, they would rather sit behind a screen, don’t read, and don’t care. It’s such common criticism, and every election cycle has seen campaigns aimed at activating youth to vote and participate in the democratic process. These efforts have mostly been unfruitful, since time and time again the statistics are not very encouraging. The age groups 18-25 and 25-30 have consistently seen more than or around 30% of abstention during elections, according to the Dutch Bureau of Statistics.

    Sooooo.... why would this time be so different?

Well, for starters, everyone on all sides of the political spectrum argue that there is more at stake now. “These elections are of historical importance,” says Rutger de Quay (21), one of the co-founders of de Stembus movement. He mentions Brexit, the refugee crisis, the EU and Trump in one breath, and then says, “it’s about our future and that why it’s so crucial that young people speak out on this.” Not completely satisfied, I ask him again why this time and their campaign would be different. He hesitates for a bit, then says, “because we understand where we can reach the young people. We get well-known people like Tim Hofman, YouTubers and rappers involved, address them on the channels where they are active already. They make their own content and talk amongst themselves already, even about political subjects. We just need to activate them. And we go to the schools with the bus, to really grab their attention.”

    Two more campaigns, who bear quite some resemblance in their names, and VOOT2017 are urging (young) Dutch voters to use their democratic rights. They use well-designed social media platforms, Facebook-videos, vlogs and graphics to reach the millenial voter. These campaigns might lack the nation-wide media attention of de Stembus, but they show that youth activation is starting to get a bigger issue with each election cycle. What they do try to do is to make politics sexy, says Marije Poort (24) of VOOT2017. “Politicians are often old. When you’re eighteen, they can be your parent. That isn’t sexy. Plus, politics is slow and content-oriented. Young people live online, everything has to be short and fast. Politics is so far away for young people.”

    Another TV program specifically catered to young voters is de 2e Kelder, a reference to the name of the Dutch parliament. The young presenters interview politicians and advisors and try to break down issues into bitesized video pieces. They (try to) take a neutral stance, criticizing every side of the very broad Dutch political spectrum using humor and memes. Similar campaigns have sprung up in France, and to a lesser extent in Germany, where the elections are still quite some months away. Whatever the reach of these campaigns may be, the mission to inform and activate youth is ambitious and might be a very difficult one.

    But.... again... how are they going to succeed this time around?

The youth is more and more disillusioned with politics, and not without reason. This year’s Dutch, French and German elections see the future of the European Union hanging on their outcome, and the political discourse is filled with inflammatory debates on refugees and immigration and outsider anti-establishment on the rise in all countries. The Brexit-vote in the United Kingdom and Trump’s victory in the United States has shown that the older generation has taken control over politics again. The Netherlands even has its own 50Plus party, particularly aimed at everyone over 50. De Quay also mentions that party, to illustrate that “this generational divide will only grow larger if young people are not encourage to go and vote”. Hofman also said a similar thing on that stage in Rotterdam: “don’t let the generations before us decide where the future of our country lies.”


      A recent report in the Economist stated that everyone may be wrong about millennials. That they do want to act up, that they do want to be a part of the political process, but only when they feel inspired. It pointed to the Bernie Sanders phenomenon in the United States for instance, which showed that an entire group of people who might never step into the political mayhem in a normal – ‘boring’ – election cycle full with debates between old, grey, white candidates, will do so when they truly feel heard and energized. Barack Obama rode on the waves and efforts of an army of youthful volunteers, who finally felt they had a candidate to fight for.

    But back to the Netherlands. It is the same there, as there is no candidate who even comes close to embodying what the millennial generation might feel or what they stand for. It’s the outsiders who are making an impact. Far right-wing and anti-immigration politician Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom are apparently quite popular amongst youth, while Jesse Klaver, the leader of GroenLinks, the green leftist party, is one of the youngest leaders of a mainstream party in Dutch political history. He bears resemblance to Justin Trudeau, and even uses much of the Canadian Prime Minister’s and Obama’s rhetoric. But will he be able to inspire enough young voters to make a difference in the Dutch elections?

Justin Klaver & Jesse Trudeau

Justin Klaver & Jesse Trudeau

    Unsurprisingly, both Poort and de Quay stress the fact that it is very important to go vote on March 15th. And they are putting quite some efforts into. But even though it seems like the campaigns are getting more attention this time around, it might prove to be a long and difficult campaign. Their battle cries might inspire young voters, or fall on deaf ears. Poort says that “young people should realize that their vote really counts”, and then adds, “I don’t know if we can make an impact. But every small effort helps, right?” De Quay gave similar responses, but echoed Hofman’s call to action on national television by saying,

get off your lazy ass and go vote, because the Netherlands is also ours and us young people really do have a say in the policymaking!

         On Facebook last month, De Stembus asked their thousands of followers what their slogan should be. Between a Descartian pun on “Ik Stembus Ik Ben” (translates to ‘I Vote Therefore I am’, but it works better in Dutch) and the more abstract “vote yourselves completely the mother", they finally settled on “Make Voting Great Again”. Now it is up to these campaigns to mimic Trump’s political earthquake by actually getting these first time voters to cast a ballot. First, they have to mostly make politics sexy again. And that can prove to be an uphill battle these days.


Mick is an are we europe core team editor and keeps himself busy with reading some stuff, writing about young people and stuff, and filming + taking photos of stuff

Note for Dutch voters - #BOOS also created an app for all #polertiek videos - check it out