'Brexit': Could tech-fueled registration get more young people to vote?

Lawmakers extended online voter registration Wednesday after a last-minute website crash. Young voters, considered less likely to vote, may also be most likely to want continued EU membership. 

Russell Boyce/Reuters
An Illustration picture shows postal ballot papers ahead of the June 23 Brexit referendum on whether Britain should leave the European Union. Lawmakers voted to extend an online voting deadline to Thursday at midnight, a bid to catch the attention of younger voters who've grown disenchanted with electoral politics.

As Britain prepares to vote on whether to leave the EU, it seems that technology can be both a friend and a foe when it comes to engaging young voters.

On Wednesday, the government extended the deadline to register to vote in the June 23 referendum, saying a surge in applications on Tuesday night caused a key website to crash. Voters may now register until Thursday at midnight.

"I am very clear that people should continue to register today," Prime Minister David Cameron, who favors remaining in the EU, told Parliament, noting that the government was discussing options with the Electoral Commission watchdog. "We are working urgently with them ... to make sure those who register today and who registered last night will be able to vote in the EU referendum," he said, according to Reuters.

More than 200,000 people were registering each hour ahead of the deadline at midnight on Tuesday, the government said, with more than half of those registering under age 34.

The so-called Brexit has divided the country, earning comparisons to the 2014 vote for Scottish independence, where young people similarly emerged as a key demographic in the decision to remain part of the UK.

But despite their importance, researchers say, many young would-be voters have grown disenchanted with electoral politics, fueling a series of efforts that use technology to provide them with information about the vote.

"Optimistically, the voices of young voters could redefine the future of the UK in Europe as they did in the case of the Scottish referendum," Darren Sharpe, a professor at the University of East London, said in a statement. "However, if young voters decide to stay at home not only is UK democracy weakened, but of equal concern is the future of the European project itself."

In response, Dr. Sharpe and colleague Matt Henn of Nottingham Trent University created a website called "Me & EU" that uses a series of videos, blogs and Twitter posts to provide young people with more information about the vote, including how to register.

"As young black people, we need to consider our membership in the EU," student Anabel Acheampong writes in one post on the site. "For example, will our membership improve racial inequalities? Specifically, does the EU acknowledge the differences between black youth all over Europe or should we be treated the same?"

Ms. Acheampong writes that she's planning to vote to remain in the EU, arguing that membership in the bloc grants "the opportunity to have global citizenship" and work elsewhere in Europe.

Many young people appear to have similar thoughts. One poll found that 53 percent of voters aged 18 to 34 say they would vote to remain in the EU, while 29 percent said they would vote to leave.

Among voters over 55, by contrast, those numbers are reversed, with 30 percent saying they would stay, while 54 percent would leave. But those older voters are also the mostly likely to vote, at 81 percent, compared to 52 percent for younger voters.

Those distinctions also mirror a broader shift, as young people turn away from electoral politics towards political engagement based on individual issues, writes James Sloam, a professor at Royal Holloway, University of London, in a blog post in April.

"Younger voters are more interested in jobs and the economy, and also the human rights and basic freedoms provided by the EU. Older voters are more interested in British 'independence', the capacity of the country to run its own affairs, and (marginally) the issue of immigration," he writes.

To capture those younger voters, some companies have begun technology-fueled voter registration drives, such as efforts by dating app Tinder and ridehailing app Uber.

Some pro-Leave campaigners argue that the voting deadline needed to be set so a register of voters could be published before the vote.

"It is probably legal to keep the site open for a short period, a few hours," Bernard Jenkin, a lawmaker in Mr. Cameron's Conservative party, told Parliament Wednesday. "But any idea of rewriting the rules in a substantial way would be complete madness and make this country look like an absolute shambles."

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