By Ryan Pike
The University of Calgary is at the centre of a perfect storm of political apathy. Every member of Parliament from Calgary is a Conservative. Same goes for the majority of the Alberta legislature. The mayor’s office changes occupants only when the incumbent decides to retire and changes in aldermen tend to have little effect. Student government has been trying to combat tuition hikes for years with no success.
The overall outcome of these trends isn’t surprising. Voter turnout for the most recent federal election was the lowest in history at 59 per cent, with only 53 per cent of eligible Calgarians casting ballots. That said, Calgarians are far more likely to vote in a national election than any other: last year’s provincial election had a dismal 41 per cent turnout and on the municipal front only 22 per cent of voters showed up to the polls. Students’ Union elections have even more dismal engagement numbers. In recent years, average turnout is in the teens.
Researchers are saying that low voter engagement is not a new phenomenon. In fact, turnout has been dropping in Canada, Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States and France. A 2003 joint study conducted by Carleton University, the University of Toronto and Elections Canada found that only 22 per cent of 18-20 year olds voted in the 2000 federal election. The study found that electoral participation numbers dropped consistently as the age group grew younger. In fact, the single most effective determinant for whether a person voted was their age. More troubling, the study found that successive generations of voters were less likely to vote than their once-young counterparts were when in the youngest age bracket.
“If in the past young people were less likely to become involved in community and national politics than their 30- and 40-year-old counterparts, today they are much less likely to be involved, so the gap between younger people and their older counterparts has grown,” says Dr. Keith Archer, a U of C professor and expert on electoral politics.
Why aren’t we voting?
Archer notes that the demographic trend could be due to modern living conditions. Prospective voters in the 18-to-25-year-old range often live away from their home constituency or travel for work or school, so they don’t establish the same ties to their community that older voters with kids or mortgages have.
“For those reasons of greater mobility and less rootedness within the community, it’s long been the case that younger people are less likely to be engaged in politics,” says Archer. “Yet, what we’ve seen in the last generation is really a major generational shift downward in the amount of engagement we see from young people.”
Ilona Dougherty, executive director of the Montreal-based group Apathy is Boring, believes that the decline in youth voting doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not engaged. A 2004 McGill University study noted that while voting has declined, volunteerism has remained strong among Canadian youth.
“It’s not that young people aren’t engaged in their communities,” says Dougherty. “It’s that they’re not connected to the sort of traditional institutions where decision-making is happening. A lot of us are involved in projects on the ground, grassroots stuff, but not seeing the relevance of why it’s important to get involved in politics.”
Teang Tang of Calgary-based Y Vote explains there are many reasons why young people are not voting, from lack of clear political information to antiquated and inconvenient poll locations.
“Our voting system was designed by our grandparents,” says Tang. “It hasn’t changed with the times. For example, in the ’60s, if you were a young person, 20 or 30, you were usually married and had two kids. People who are married and have two kids are usually going to schools to vote or churches to vote.”
With recent generations getting married later in life and an increasing reliance on public transit in light of soaring gas prices, Tang says that the old polling locations aren’t nearly as convenient now as they used to be.
Dougherty adds that political information isn’t nearly as accessible as it should be.
“It’s not that there are too many parties, but that the information is not presented in an accessible way,” says Dougherty. “It’s not made relevant to our lives. It’s really hard right now when we go to any of the parties’ websites to understand how that affects you as a young person.”
Would changing our electoral system solve the problem?
Canada’s electoral system is commonly cited reason for low voter turnout. The current single member plurality system, nicknamed “first-past-the-post,” has been lauded for its sheer simplicity, but criticized for distorting results. For instance, the Green Party secured no seats despite having 6.8 per cent of votes, while the Conservatives garnered just under half of the seats in Parliament with just over a third of voters.
On a local scale, the Green Party tends to field younger candidates and focuses more on issues important to youth, such as the environment, than any other party. Yet despite recent strong, and growing, showings in Calgary ridings– they finished ahead of many Liberal and New Democrat candidates– the Greens appear no closer to a breakthrough than they were years ago. Archer suggests that frustration on the part of some young voters could contribute to their dwindling engagement.
“It’s for people that are voting for the opposition parties and finding over a number of elections, ‘There’s not really a chance for my candidate to win under the current system so why should I turn out to vote?’ ” Archer says. “That’s one of the difficulties within our electoral system, particularly if people find themselves supporting what are usually described as minor parties– parties that don’t really have a realistic chance of winning a constituency contest.”
However, there are two lingering questions: would changing the electoral system solve the voter turnout problem, and if so, do Canadians even want the system to change? Germany has utilized a mixed proportional system in its parliament since 1949, electing roughly half of the 598 members of the Bundenstag proportionately, but has seen the same erosion of its electorate that other Western countries have. New Zealand began using a mixed proportional system in 1996, voters choose a local candidate as well as a party to ensure proportionality, but has seen a similar drop in participation- from 88 per cent in 1996 to 79 per cent in last year’s general election.
But, while the 2003 study showed that a significant proportion of respondents, 71 per cent, categorized themselves as “very” or “somewhat supportive” of a switch to proportional representation, the electoral system was not the top reason identified by young people for not voting. The most common reasons given by those under 25 for not voting were that they felt distanced from politics by their age, they were uninterested in the process and that political information was not readily available to them.
What can be done?
“We need to find ways to help our democracy evolve,” says Dougherty. “I think that’s important and I think that’s a way of engaging people. It’s, ‘Okay, how would you like this system to work if it’s not working for you?’ But I think it goes beyond that. There’s a bunch of different things that need to change and we need to look into how to make the system function again.”
Barring a large-scale change, the prime movers behind disseminating political information will likely be the parties themselves. The inherent bias with relying upon the parties for platform information places a renewed impetus on agencies like Elections Canada and the news media to provide prospective voters with each party’s positions.
“If politicians were to address those barriers, I think they would see more youth turnout– making the Elections Canada website easy to navigate; helping us understand what each party stands for,” says Tang. “Ideally you want to be able to type in a topic, let’s say global warming, and you want to know immediately what each party’s platform stands for without getting a biased opinion.”
Archer notes that while final statistics are not yet available, there is a strong suspicion in the political science community that voter turnout in the United States election saw a surge largely due to young voters. He feels that the reason for the success of the Barack Obama presidential campaign wasn’t just their utilization of technology, but that they effectively courted and mobilized young voters with a candidate and platform that energized them.
“I think it’s fair to say that if you look at the recent Alberta election from last spring, neither of the major parties had a candidate that really was appealing to the sentiments of younger people that sort of turn them onto politics,” notes Archer. “When we find that 41 per cent of Albertans show up at the polls, maybe that’s partly connected to them not being inspired to turn out.”
The role of the education system in influencing youth engagement is key. A 1996-97 study conducted by political science professor Andre Blais examining the electorate of nine countries concluded that the two largest determinants of voting were education and age. A 2006 University of Sydney study found that roughly half of 5,000 Australian high schoolers polled felt they lacked enough knowledge to understand political parties, but also identified teachers, parents and the media as the most influential groups in terms of providing that knowledge. The 2003 Elections Canada study concluded that increased attention to civics education in schools would be effective in interesting young people in the political process.
The chicken and the egg dilemma
The ability to solve youth apathy seems to be in the hands of political parties or governments, both often having an obvious partisan agenda. Dougherty says that political parties are still unsure about how to approach youth voters.
“Young people are not a group that these political parties are catering to because our vote doesn’t matter because we don’t vote,” says Dougherty. “So, you know, they don’t want young people to start voting because they don’t know how they’re going to vote. So, in a way, it’s one of these funny catch-22s where we need to get involved for them to want to present that information in a way that is relevant to us.”
In the meantime, it may fall upon the media and activist groups already involved in politics to get more people engaged in the process. Groups like Y Vote and Apathy is Boring are actively engaged in getting young adults involved in politics, while Canada’s mainstream media is increasingly becoming involved with Twitter feeds and blogs, joining an already thriving alternative media base. The increasing wealth of political information available to web-savvy young Canadians may hold the key to more engagement at the polls.
Nevertheless, Canadians under 25 years of age remain the least politically active group in the country. Until youth are mobilized at the polls, it seems unlikely that the parties will deem them important enough to cater to in any meaningful fashion.