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LOL Democracy! Some Young Voters Have No Idea How to Mail a Ballot

17 Sep 2017 6:18 pm
By Rob Taylor 

CANBERRA, Australia -- The future of democracy faces an unexpected challenge from within.

Can young voters learn to use a mailbox?

The outcome of a national mail-in vote in Australia this fall on sanctioning same-sex marriage may teeter on the answer. "I don't really know what the go is with post boxes, stamps, that kind of thing," says 23-year-old Anna Dennis. Ms. Dennis, a sociology student at the elite Australian National University, says the last time she had to mail a parcel "I took my dad to help."

Early polls showed 59% of voters in favor of allowing same-sex marriage in the advisory vote, with support around 80% among voters age 25 and younger. But advocates worry whether enough millennials like Ms. Dennis, who prefers instant messaging, know how to mail a letter.

Tiernan Brady was recruited to run the Equality Campaign after heading Ireland's same-sex marriage referendum in 2015. He says he starts campaign events by asking, "How many people have posted a letter in the past year?"

Typically, "only a handful of hands go up," Mr. Brady says.

"Australians don't do postal votes," he says. "The last one was in 1917, so we can safely say no one alive remembers it."

Like elsewhere, instant-message apps and email have taken their toll. Mail volume has plummeted, according to Australia Post, the national mail service: Australians sent a billion fewer letters last year than a decade ago. Business and government mail account for 95% of all letters.

Postal service appears to have joined the list of habits abandoned by millennials, including paying by check and answering the doorbell, a device that a majority in a recent Twitter poll agreed was "scary weird."

Sending a letter is like recalling the times table from grade-school arithmetic, says Yan Zhuang, a 21-year-old politics major at the University of Melbourne. "You sort of remember," she says, "but not really."

Australia Post says it doesn't know how many young people send mail. A 2015 study for the Royal Mail in the U.K. found a third of them believe "writing letters is a thing of the past." Half said they wrote friends on social media every day; most said they mailed about one letter a year.

Millennials have found correspondence a two-way street. Nida Javed, 28, a Sydney-based IT specialist, says for once she would like to receive a letter that doesn't begin: "To whom it may concern."

Approving same-sex marriage in Australia doesn't require a national referendum. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, weakened by elections last year that left his conservative coalition with a one-seat majority, decided to toss the question to voters, then, depending on results, address the issue in Parliament.

Some 400,000 Australians from the ages of 18 to 25 have never voted, but around 90,000 mostly young people have registered since the same-sex vote was announced in August, according to the Australian Electoral Commission.

They are poised to support same-sex marriage in large numbers, says Ariadne Vromen, a social researcher at the University of Sydney.

That is, if they can figure out how. Ballots went out last week, with postage paid, and results will be announced Nov. 15.

Much work remains for both sides.

Lyle Shelton, head of the Australian Christian Lobby and leading the "No" camp, says his group will launch a "find your mailbox" initiative.

"There's a whole younger demographic who don't know what those big red boxes on the street are," he says. "It's just what we're up against."

Andrew Leigh, who supports same-sex marriage, produced a video that shows how to identify mailboxes.

In the video, Mr. Leigh, a lawmaker for Australia's main opposition Labor party, says: "If you were born after 1990 you might be wondering what this red box is. You could be thinking to yourself is it a parking meter? Is it a funky form of public art? Is it a place to put my coffee?"

Some colleges are offering to act as mail couriers for students. "For some young people the barrier of physically having to post something might be all a bit too much," says Robyn Lewis, an adviser at Australian National University. The campus post office was demolished during a recent modernization.

Some on both sides of the same-sex marriage issue say the vote would be more accurate if it were conducted electronically, via computers and mobile phones. Others worry about security and reliability of voting online.

Ms. Dennis says conservative parents who collect the mail at home might try to hide the ballot papers from their voting-age children. "My dad deals with the mail," she says.

Others say ballots may be lost under piles of store catalogs and utility bills. "No one really checks the mail at our share house," says Ben Grono, age 29, who works in digital communications in Sydney. "It winds up piled up somewhere in the house. It's an object of curiosity."

To find a mailbox, Mr. Grono says, he would try a Google search.

Albert Patajo, age 23, of the northern city of Darwin, says he last mailed a letter in 2013, when he applied for a visa to study in the U.S. "I just find it very inefficient," he says.

Mr. Patajo, who is researching cryptocurrencies and blockchain technologies in his study of law and science, says he prefers communicating over WhatsApp and other instant-messaging platforms.

He doesn't text much, he says, "unless it's for my parents."


Rachel Pannett

contributed to this article.

Write to Rob Taylor at rob.taylor@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

September 17, 2017 14:18 ET (18:18 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2017 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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