Aušrinė Diržinskaitė is only 22 years old and already having an impact on the involvement of young people in politics and accountability of politicians. Only about one in three young people (18-24) in Lithuania are voting. The watchdogging intiative “Learn before you vote” tries to change that.

Could you explain what “Learn before you vote” is about?
Our main function is watchdogging: holding politicians responsible not only after elections but also before. We do this in two ways. We organize electoral debates between candidates and we have a platform online where people can continue the conversation and ask the politicians questions.

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At the end of each debate, which are organized by the youth themselves (some as young as 16 years old), we ask the politicians for three things they want to do when they get elected. We record these promises, so we can hold them accountable when they get elected. We also do immediate fact checking of the statements they make, as well as checking their résumés. There are for example politicians that state they speak languages they don’t actually speak. How willing are they to lie about other things?

Over the past three years we have grown a lot and the results are promising. Prior to last month’s elections we organized 45 debates throughout the country, with about 4500 people present. Online we have a participation of 150 000. Most importantly, there has been an increase in the number of young people (18-24 y.o.) that went to vote from 16% to 38.1%!

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You have grown explosively in a very short amount of time. What is your key to success?
We had famous journalists backing the initiative and writing about it. This helped put pressure and gain popularity. We also managed to get some well-known moderators for the debates. As such politicians were more interested to participate in the debates. Nevertheless, it’s still a challenge to get the youth to vote. Research shows that if young people participate in their first or second elections, they are more likely to make a habit out of it and to participate more actively in the future. While we try to get them engaged, we will have three elections in one year time in 2019. That can be very overwhelming.

As an organization that wants accountability from politicians, how do you ensure your own accountability and impartiality?
First of all, all volunteers need to sign a declaration of honor, in which they state their impartiality and that we want to include all parties. As we are a grassroots organization, we are a network that is responsible together! The challenge lays in the watchdogging of the promises. There are 71 elected officials, and we try to monitor them all equally with limited means.

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What motivates you as such a young person to already be so devoted to doing this?
You caught me a little bit by surprise! I spend so much time with making our young volunteers reflect critically, now I have to explain my own motivation. For me it is really the energy and progress I see in our young volunteers. To see them grow. And you meet so many people.

What is your greatest lesson from the past years?
Do not underestimate young people! They have organized all these debates together and asked really critical questions. Also, coöperation is really important for change. Our network with journalists, NGO’s and other social actors made the difference in the elections from this year!

As populism and dissatisfaction with the status quo are on the rise, different people have been posing the question whether we should install certain qualifications before people are allowed to vote. That in itself defies the very definition of democracy. The approach “Learn before you vote” takes a much more constructive approach that is also more sustainable in the long term. 

All pictures are from “Learn before you vote”