We have all heard it in the news at some point – young voter participation has been in steady decline these past few years. Compared to the turnout during elections in the 1970s at around 70 per cent, only 40 per cent of young voters participated in the previous Canadian federal election. Even more troubling is, according to this Globe and Mail editorial, apathetic voting behavior could stay that way for the rest of their life.
It’s an appalling situation that begs so many questions: What’s different with the current young generation? Who is to blame? What can be done? Given the broadness of both the issue and the demographic, there can be a variety of reasons for the lack of effort. They span from perhaps this generation’s disillusionment with politics, to just plain voter apathy.
One analysis from the CBC firmly supports the latter. According to political scientist David Moscorp, this generation has become too complacent to care about politics. It is especially problematic in more urbanized parts of western countries. By contrast, most of active young voters seem to come from more rural or religious backgrounds.
As his analysis suggests, it is a stark contrast to some developing countries, where voting rights are a hard-fought battle. Afghanistan is one example, where people possibly risk their lives in an effort to maintain some semblance of democracy. Compared to here in North America, privileged youth desire interesting incentives to participate. As a result, some organizations rely on sensational incentives like meeting celebrities or free marijuana to motivate the demographic.
Being a middle-class, city based young voter myself, I understand this stance. When bombarded with modern privileges like technology, new media, etc., it’s hard to pay attention to politics in general. Admittedly, as a teenager I didn’t pay much attention to the previous federal election until the results came in. Given all this, the ‘youth being youth’ argument regarding voter apathy has some validity.
However, political apathy is one thing, but desensitization is another. Another possible critical reason most young people are absent from the polls is a collective feeling of self-irrelevance from politics.
In a feature by The Ubyssey, the student-run newspaper of the University of British Columbia (UBC), many professors and students shared this sentiment. According to the article, problems such as prioritizing older groups, sensationalist political rhetoric and the problematic ‘first past the post’ electoral system make it all an unattractive affair for young voters. For them, it simply paints a cynical picture of both the system and process.
“There is a misapprehension that young voters are being apathetic, not caring, too plugged into their gadgets,” said UBC political scientist Max Cameron in response to The Ubyssey. “In fact, youth look at the political process and they say, ‘Well, I don’t see myself reflected in it.’”
Whether complete apathy or actively abstaining altogether, what is the solution then? One common suggestion appears for either scenario: taking the youth more seriously.
Returning to the CBC analysis, Moscorp suggests that gimmick incentives to get youth voting should be dropped altogether. For him, it is important to emphasize to the youth the serious ramifications attached to being involved in national politics. This is even if it takes a mandatory voting law to put the point across.
In the earlier mentioned Globe and Mail editorial, the anonymous writer takes a similar stance. For him/her, most politicians fail to be in touch with their younger audience. It results in promises that have nothing to do with their best interests. As a result, it reflects the tendency for politics to underestimate young people overall.
“Young people are smart …they know where they stand. They undoubtedly suspect that their well-documented apathy has been factored into strategists’ planning, which only deepens their disengagement,” wrote the G&M writer. “What they want is a leader who speaks to their desire to change the world for the better and to rise above partisan politics.”
Most important of all is that young people themselves need to step-up and take the initiative. As Jude Crasta, VP External of UBC’s Alma Mater Society, explains to the Ubyssey, more youth involvement proves their generation’s worth in Canada’s political future.
“It gives politicians a reason to see that students should not be taken for granted… It helps the case later on to… say, ‘Look, we have a lot of students – 52,000 of them – they are voters. You should probably listen to what they say because if you don’t respond well they’re probably not going to rehire you in the next election’.”
Whatever the solutions are, it is clear that young voters need to play a bigger role in our elections. It is also just as essential that the ‘grown-ups’ of Parliament Hill recognize that as well. If already too late for this generation, then we are at least obligated to prepare those yet to come.