A record surge in the registration of young voters has given added potency to scare stories appearing in the Sun and Daily Mail that allege university students across the UK are engaged in “voting scams and frauds” ahead of polling day.
Brexit-supporting newspapers failed to make any mention of widespread appeals to young people to ensure they registered to vote before the deadline of 26 November.
But despite a Conservative press boycott, the campaign to achieve the widest possible franchise for polling day on December 12 was backed by regular reminders by celebrities, broadcasters, and other media outlets and their combined efforts did have a dramatic effect.
By the deadline, an extra 3.8 million people had registered to vote since October 29 when the election was announced. On the last day there were 659,000 registrations – a new record for a final day.
According to the Electoral Reform Society, 67 per cent of the registrations were from people aged 34 and under and this included a spike in registrations from those under 25, “one of the demographics least likely to be correctly registered”.
A refusal by Tory tabloids to help alert young people – or report on the success of the registration campaign – needs no explanation.
Most opinion surveys suggest younger voters are far more likely to back Labour than the Conservatives and therefore the only counterattack that could be stirred up by Tory media allies such as the Sun and Daily Mail was to denigrate young voters – and especially those at university.
This strategy has the twin objective of strengthening the pressure by Conservative MPs for tighter control on voter registration, especially for young people, and to denigrate the demands for the voting age to be reduced to 16, which is now the case in Wales as well as in Scotland for regional and local elections.
Alarmist headlines are second nature to the tabloid press and undermining the public’s faith in the electoral process is an easy target.
“First class degree in election fraud” was the headline on Sue Reid’s double-page spread (Daily Mail, 2.11.2019) which examined abuses she claimed were being perpetrated by students in traditionally Conservative voting university towns:
“The campus scams: double voting...postal voting...personation...multiple voting.”
The Sun waded in, under the headline, “Unis accused of voting scampus” (20.11.2019) alleging that universities and Labour councils had been registering thousands of students “without their knowledge in a bid to boost left-wing turnout”.
Next day’s edition – “Scampus UK” (Sun, 21.11.2019) – quoted the Conservative chairman James Cleverly calling on the Electoral Commission to start “a nationwide probe” after claims the “Labour-run Plymouth Council had registered 850 students without permission”.
“A procedural error” had apparently been detected, but the Electoral Commission insisted there was “no evidence of illegal mass registrations elsewhere”.
On the Sun’s editorial page, columnist Charlotte Gill followed up her paper’s investigation into the “shocking” scandal in Plymouth with a warning that young voters were “hardly the most clued-up age group” and she wondered how the left would respond if 16-year-old voters turned around and said: “Sure, for Boris Johnson – yes, please”.
Having been upstaged by the Sun, the Daily Mail published Sue Reid’s follow-up, another double-page spread, “Could Labour voter fraud steal the election” (23.11.2019) alleging that student housing was being “trawled for discarded registration cards...all to cynically take advantage of our worryingly lax election system”.
Having done so much to ignore campaigns to engage young voters, the Daily Mail greeted the decision by the Welsh Assembly to follow the Scottish Parliament to allow votes at 16 by questioning the effect of allowing 70,000 “children aged 16 and 17” to vote in regional and local elections in Wales from 2021.( 28.11.2019)
Conservative and Brexit Party Assembly Members voted against the move, but it was approved by just one vote over the required two-thirds majority.
The British Youth Council said the Welsh decision was a cause for huge celebration, which only served to highlight the fact that 1.4 million 16- and 17-olds would be denied a vote in the 2019 general election.
Illustration: Sun, 20 11 2019