Michael Sani is revolutionizing youth democratic participation by creating a generation of young changemakers who have the skills and confidence needed to embark on a journey of lifelong political engagement. With less than 45% of those aged 18-25 registered to vote in the UK, politicians have little incentive to consider the needs of young people when framing policies, creating a vicious cycle of further disenfranchisement.
The New Idea
Low youth engagement in the democratic process has been a consistent problem across Europe for fifty years. Michael Sani aims to make history, by empowering a generation of young people to realize and execute the power of their votes and voices, and by ultimately holding elected decision-makers to account for issues that matter to young people. To reach this aim, Michael founded Bite the Ballot in 2010 to ignite a self-propelling youth movement; for the first time he is putting the challenge of making young people participate in democracy into the hands of young people themselves. Bite the Ballot’s young ambassadors create wake-up call experiences for their peers, leading into lifelong political engagement. By working through young people for young people and by bringing politics to where young people are, Bite the Ballot reaches those deemed to be furthest away from politics and has already succeeded in getting 50,000 young people registered to vote in one day.
Whereas most efforts done by charities, local authorities or politicians to get young people excited about politics either do not resonate with them or target those who are already interested, Bite the Ballot communicates political issues through a range of new and unexpected communication channels. To reach young people where they are, Bite the Ballot works on two levels: a grassroots peer-to-peer network bringing politics to life on the ground, and a network of digital media channels keeping up the momentum and multiplying outreach. Michael has established a network of young Community Engagement Officers or CEOs who are responsible for mobilizing young people in their communities and who lobby local authorities and electoral commissions to ease up voter registration opportunities. To allow CEOs to create an impactful experience for the young people they engage with, Michael has developed a series of interactive educational games that can be streamed anywhere from classrooms to youth clubs. The games inspire young people to discuss issues, not politics and reveal both the power everyone holds in their vote as well as how staying away from the ballot box equals remaining unheard. Already Bite the Ballot games and resources are being distributed by educational institutions as best practice to over 6,000 secondary schools in the UK.
To leverage peer-to-peer engagement Michael has created a web of partnerships with social media outlets such as Twitter and YouTube, who keep the conversations going and offer to young people a new range of platforms to form and articulate their opinions. Finally, Michael is working to tear down the barriers that hinder such involvement on a practical level, lobbying the government to make registration and voting easier, more accessible and truly open to everyone. By activating young changemakers while changing the practicalities of our democratic system, Michael aims to mobilize a critical mass of young voters who will tip the democratic system as we know it.
Overall voter turnout in European national elections has been steadily declining and the gap in turnout between 18-25 year olds and other age groups continues to widen. In the UK, young people aged 18-25 are the least represented group on the electoral register, with only 44% registered to vote. In contrast, 94% of over-65s are registered, giving politicians a direct incentive to pursue policies benefitting the older generations while disregarding young people’s needs. These incentives feed into every political party’s manifesto, causing a vicious cycle of disengaging young people from politics even further. A study from Nottingham University reveals that only 12% of young people feel that their voices are being heard in society, and less than half had even attempted to express their views.
Low youth turnout can be attributed to two main factors: confusion over the practicalities of voting and registration, and feelings of political apathy or alienation. A recent shift to online registration in the UK could in theory help simplify the process. But of the 93,000 people who registered online during the first week of the new system, only 326 of these were under-24. This highlights a complete lack of information channels reaching young people on how to register and why it is important for them to do so. Furthermore, in June 2014 “Individual Electoral Registration” was introduced, prohibiting heads of households from automatically registering their young family members, and making it each person’s individual responsibility to actively sign up. In Northern Ireland the introduction of IER caused youth registration rates to drop below 10%, sparking a big retrospective push to regain the youth vote. The UK Government failed to learn from this experience, and has not developed any significant plans for raising awareness following these changes in the system. The Hansard Society predicts that youth turnout might be as low as 12% in the next general election.
The practical obstacles to registration however, could be overcome if young people were motivated to act and actually participate in democracy. The state education system, however, is failing to ensure young people have an engaging or informative introduction to politics and changemaking. Civic engagement is officially part of the national school curriculum, but it fails to teach the practicalities of our democratic system. 64% of those who had taken the Citizenship Studies GCSE reported that their knowledge and understanding of policies had increased ‘not very much’ or ‘not at all.’ Rather than giving young people the knowledge they need to be confident and informed voters, young people are left feeling ignorant and powerless. Attempts by both politicians and non-partisan campaigns to engage young voters are patchy, short-term, and rarely succeed in reaching out to youths in ways that resonate with them. They are often dismissed as out of touch, with outdated use of social media and delivered through representatives from a different generation. Furthermore, they discuss politics rather than issue-based content and hence fail to get young people’s attention. Opportunities and platforms for young people to discuss and air their views only focus on the minority who are already interested in politics, while projects seeking to inform disengaged young people rarely go beyond superficial engagement. As a result, low youth participation caused by ignorance or institutional barriers is often mistaken as apathy towards politics.
Michael is activating a whole generation of young changemakers, who are equipped and empowered to take their first step into democratic participation. Michael’s ultimate aim is to tip the democratic system to ensure it is truly representative. To reach this aim Michael’s strategy works on three levels - grassroots, digital and policy - always working through young people for young people.
The first part of Michael’s strategy is to create an experience for every young person, where they come in contact with a truly compelling introduction to the democratic process at an early age. He therefore developed a grassroots engagement and education model, which is effective and simple to roll out nationwide. Together with a dozen young people aged 15-25 Bite the Ballot has developed a series of interactive educational games called ‘The Basics’ that provoke opinions, challenge common misconceptions and bring to life the power of democratic participation. In the game ‘Vote with your feet’ for example, students are asked to stand on either side of the classroom depending on their opinions on statements such as ‘Education should be free’, and then discover that the majority of their viewpoints effectively go unheard when young people don’t register to vote. Teams of young people then decide how they would allocate the government budget, bringing to life the power of decision-makers on services which affect youths. Michael and his team have themselves delivered ‘The Basics’ to students in over 450 schools to date.
To spread the reach of this experience to a critical mass of young people, BTB has developed their engagement tools into a peer-to-peer model, building a nationwide network of young ambassadors who lobby their local authorities and get in touch with young people on the ground. Bite the Ballot’s Community Engagement Officers’ or CEOs are encouraged to take on leadership, mapping their communities and building relationships with a network of schools, youth clubs, universities as well as the local authority and electoral commission. To make the model sustainable, Michael recruits local councils to compensate the CEO’s salaries. To spread their reach, CEOs use a train-the-trainer model and appoint peers to run The Basics in their own networks. Bite the Ballot has also trained teachers, community organizations, and over 70 local authorities to run ‘The Basics’ and train others. Recently, Ofsted has endorsed Bite the Ballot resources as best practice, sending it out as a recommendation to the head teachers of all 6,000 secondary schools in the UK. To allow for wide circulation, all resources are digitalized, celebrity-endorsed and free to download for anyone to use. Today, The Basics have been copied and are being used by international youth organizations such as Rock the Vote in the United States. While The Basics serves as a first spark for young people’s life-long political journey, Bite the Ballot simultaneously provides resources for these young people to organize National Voter Registration Day (NVRD) events themselves, getting people instantly registered. To date, over 400 local drives have been run nationwide, including in schools, sports clubs, businesses and in supermarket chains, registering up to 50,000 young people per day. The House of Commons Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform cited Bite the Ballot as best practice in their effectiveness to increase voter turnout in one of their most recent reports.
The second strand of Michael’s strategy lies in building new, meaningful channels for young people to steadily increase their level of participation with democracy after their initial interest is sparked. To this end, Bite the Ballot brings political issues to where young people are – online. Michael has developed a web of communication channels, officially partnering with Twitter and YouTube as well as established media outlets such as ITV. When Michael launched the UK’s first National Voter Registration Day, Bite the Ballot’s online campaign reached over 10 million people. Michael has then identified the current system of news and media as a key barrier to youths’ interest in democracy. As a result, Bite the Ballot’s communications focus on issues, rather than politics. Michael’s team recently launched ‘Bite News’, a YouTube news channel designed with and for young people, explaining national and global politics in a neutral and easy to understand way. To ensure that political interest and registration translates into participation on election day, Michael is also launching an app that will allow young people to be matched with the party or candidate that most represents their views, always remaining party-neutral and using official manifesto statements only. Most recently, Michael has launched ‘Leaders Live’, the first ever real-time Q&A between young people and each of the five party leaders running for election, allowing youth to challenge them directly in a public space. Mainstream news channel ITV is a partner for live streaming the sessions, the first such exposure of party leaders to the questions of young people. Informed appropriately and equipped with practical tools, Bite the Ballot is enabling a whole generation of young people to make confident and informed decisions when going to the ballot box.
The third strand of Michael’s strategy is to change the democratic system itself and to remove key barriers that prevent young citizens from engaging with democracy. To do so, Michael is working on a policy level, trying to shape the law going forward. In particular Michael is championing three systemic changes that will affect youth democratic participation permanently: making democratic education and opportunities for voter registration universal in schools; ensuring that every engagement a citizen has with the government – whether it is with a GP or applying for a parking permit or a new passport – acts as an opt-in opportunity to register; and creating cross-party support to move towards online voting. Bite the Ballot has already gained traction in Wales’ House of Lords for example, proposing a bill amendment to make registration available in schools. Through these key changes, Michael hopes to turn registration and democratic participation into a rite of passage for young people, reaching a tipping point that will fundamentally change incentive structures for politicians.
Although Bite the Ballot has made significant headway already, Michael believes that to reach a tipping point of youth engagement for the upcoming general election in the UK, an additional 250,000 young people need to get registered. To mobilize this critical mass and “make history”, Michael is consciously ramping up every aforementioned part of his strategy, bringing young people closer to politics and making the youth vote more relevant to politicians. Bringing about a sudden increase in youth participation and changing intergenerational voter turnout will force politicians to react, while in turn encouraging more young people to start a journey of political engagement. After demonstrating his tipping strategy during the 2015 general elections, Michael strives to scale his model across Europe. Within the UK, he will extend his model to work with primary school children in order to foster fundamental skills needed by young people to become active citizens from an even earlier age on, and continue working through large-scale partnerships to change the conversation around youth participation in democracy.
Michael grew up in a working class neighborhood in the suburbs of South East London. He enjoyed school but his real passion laid in Drama and Business Studies, not the most conventional pairing but Drama was Michael’s opportunity to escape into new characters and his love of business sparked from his Business Studies teacher. Michael’s lack of self-motivation and aspiration for conventional education saw him under achieve at A ‘Level. As Michael transitioned into University, he soon transitioned into a self-motivated and focused student and finished his Business Management and Finance course at Southampton Institute one year earlier than expected.
Whilst at University, Michael got involved in piloting a volunteering initiative that would allow students to obtain credits towards their degree. As part of the initiative, Michael went door-to-door speaking with the tenants of a 24-story tower block in Southampton to improve their well-being and communications by getting connected online. After the successful pilot the scheme was later adopted by his university, making volunteering a viable option for students to choose as a unit.
After university Michael worked in a bank for some time, but left deeply unsatisfied with the purpose of his work to go travelling around the world on a shoestring budget, fulfilling a dream he held from a young age to broaden his horizons and understanding. Upon his return, Michael started to work as an actor. He had been passionate about acting since he was a boy and had some professional success, providing an outlet for his creativity. At the same time, Michael was driven by a strong sense of justice, and empathy for young people growing up with similar experiences to his own - with little stability at home or in school and with little guidance on their role in society. Mike started working as a cover teacher in a referral school in a deprived town outside London. In teaching, Mike discovered his true talent to connect to young people, speak their language and get them excited about education.
Michael had been a teacher for 3.5 years when his boss and fellow colleague, David, who was age 61, asked whether he would vote in the upcoming general election. Michael was 27 by that point, and had to admit that he was not even registered. This was a turning point in his life, and Michael became determined to find out how it was possible to have spent nine years in a democratic state as an eligible voter without learning how to register. Searching for answers, Michael realized none of his students knew about democracy and their power within the decision making process either. He became determined to tackle what he saw as a grave injustice in the democratic process, and the seeds for Bite The Ballot were born. Together with David and other staff and students at that school, started developing a lesson plan to deliver in his school, never imagining his work would spiral into the national sphere over the coming two years. After a year, Michael began to see the full national potential of his idea and the opportunity for creating a large-scale movement to tip the political system. He gave up his secure teaching job and put all his money into leading the roll-out of Bite The Ballot.