Youth vote campaigns wasted on the young?

Despite years of pleading by rock musicians and advocacy groups, voter participation is woefully low among youth. They may be alienated and disengaged from politics — but do we really need to beg?

They may be alienated and disengaged, but many youth are also not voting out of sheer complacency

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has achieved a 99.97 per cent voter turnout by making the failure to vote an act of treason. He also chooses the winner. (KCNA/Reuters)

They have this really funky way of "rocking" the youth vote in North Korea.

Perhaps you've heard of it? It's called "Or else."

To make it super easy for anyone who finds the process confusing, there's only one candidate on each ballot. And people who don't show up are tried for treason.

The results are impressive: a 99.97 per cent turnout. But could it work in Canada?

'We have become complacent'

Maybe "being allowed to stay alive" is a little too stark a promise, but given the array of incentives aimed at luring young people to the polls on Oct. 19, it wouldn't be out of place.

Musicians are holding free concerts, one group is offering nude pictures, and a pot dispensary is promising free marijuana and a chance to see Snoop Dogg.

Political scientists like David Moscrop expect it all to have some effect on voting day, but even so, it's an uphill battle. Turnout in 2011 for ages 18 to 24 was about 39 per cent. And for ages 25 to 34 it was about 45 per cent.

We've all heard the reasons: young people are alienated; they're not engaged; politicians aren't speaking directly to them. But maybe something else is going on.

"In some sense, we have become complacent — especially young Canadians," says Moscrop.

It's a tough argument to make without sounding like an old codger, but it doesn't make it any less true: the right to vote is a hard-fought one for which people elsewhere risk their lives.

Last year, millions of Afghans defied Taliban threats and rain to vote in that country's election; people lined up for hours, they ran out of ballots.

Afghan voters risked life and limb to exercise their democratic franchise without the promise of free marijuana and concert tickets. (Zohra Bensemra/Reuters)

The fact that Canadian soldiers died to help secure that democratic process only underscores the stakes.

"You might literally lose life or limb for turning out," says Moscrop.

"Here, there's no risk except for maybe slipping and falling down on your way to the ballot box. So what's going on?"

No easy answer

After the last federal election, Elections Canada published a paper that looked specifically at the problem of youth electoral engagement.

The results were as bewildering as they were fascinating.

Rural youth aged 18 to 24 were more likely to vote than urban youth; the pattern reversed among voters aged 25 to 30.

Single youth aged 18 to 24 were more likely to vote than married citizens. And once people turned 25, their numbers reversed again.

Religious youth were more likely to vote, as were 18- to 24-year-old students. Canadian-born youth were much more likely to vote than young people born outside the country.

Not surprisingly, politically engaged youth were more likely to vote than people who have no interest in politics.

It wouldn't take a federally commissioned study to figure that one out, but it does make you wonder why civically minded youth feel they have to take on the burden of dragging their apolitical counterparts to the polls.

If a young person dedicates significant time and energy to politics, do they really want to risk having their vote cancelled by someone who emerges from a Game of Thrones marathon long enough to cast a ballot in the hopes of getting free tickets to a Grimes concert?

Canada isn't alone in seeing a drop in young voters; the United States, Britain and Finland have also seen declines.

'Late maturation'?

The 2011 study found any number of reasons why youth might not vote, but says those same factors could apply to anyone: one country's elections don't mean as much in a globalized world; the parties are all alike; and negative campaigning turns people off.

A Vancouver pot dispensary is promising free marijuana and a chance to see Snoop Dogg in concert as incentive to vote. (Marcus Ericsson/Reuters)

Before basically throwing their hands up and saying the issue calls for more study, the authors raise one particularly interesting possibility: could "late maturation" be contributing?

That was the finding of a British researcher who noted that people get married, find jobs and move away from home later in life than they used to. In fact, they get to call themselves "youth" well into their 30s.

"This suggests that we should not be too worried by the recent turnout decline among youth," the study says. "They will eventually catch up."

Are we coddling young, late-blooming voters by trying to convince them voting is fun and cool, as opposed to something you just have to do, like taking out the garbage or helping around the house as long as you're living at home?

Moscrop says he's come to believe the only way to get young people to vote — and all people, for that matter — is by making it mandatory.

He says a 100 per cent turnout would ensure that politicians are elected by a true majority of Canadians, not a percentage of a percentage.

And that rather than investing resources into voter turnout programs, politically engaged youth might be able to better focus their energy on civic education, reform and actual politics.

Of course, the penalties don't need to be as severe as in North Korea. We also get to choose from more than one name on the ballot.

About the Author

Jason Proctor


Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and mental health issues in the justice system extensively.


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