From ballot box to blue box, whither the youth vote

Simon Jackson column

As election day approaches and the polls continue to tighten, the makeup of Canada's next parliament is simply too close to call.

Voter intentions are "fluid," the pollsters say and each campaign will be judged on its ability to get out its vote and inspire the large number of undecided voters to come into its tent.

For many, it seems unfathomable that someone might not be interested in casting a ballot.

But Elections Canada's website reveals that voter turnout has been steadily sliding below 70 per cent in Canada over the past four elections. If the polls are accurate, the decline is not about to change in this election either and among the worst offenders are young people.

According to the Dominion Institute, in the last election, 57 per cent of young people pledged to vote, but fewer than 45 per cent actually turned up.

The same study states that the number of young people intending to vote in this election is down to 50 per cent, meaning the turnout could reach a new low water mark.

Trolling for undecided

With this in mind, Canada's major parties will crank up their get-out-the-vote machines, which are truly campaigns unto themselves, particularly in the critical swing ridings.

But with resources at a premium, many potential voters will be overlooked in this process: it is one thing to try to convince a dedicated voter to choose between two contenders and quite another to try to engage someone who feels disenfranchised. 

As one political insider told me, if someone can't be easily convinced to vote — especially a young voter — then they will be left in the proverbial voter trash bin.

But one party's castoff is another lobby group's opportunity.

As Marc Chalifoux, the executive director of the Dominion Institute, argues, young people are not voting because of apathy but because large numbers (more than 30 per cent) feel ill-informed.

As Chalifoux points out, "That's a potent pool of potential voters just waiting to be engaged."

Enter more localized, grassroots environmental causes.

From ballot issue to blue box

The environment, understandably, has taken a back seat in the latter part of this election campaign given the current economic climate and that has left conservation groups, who feel this is a pivotal moment in our nation's history, with a need to find a new way to tie green issues to the ballot box.

One way, it seems, is to look within their organizations and convince their non-voting young supporters to vote on behalf of an issue that they are clearly passionate about.

Mark Masongsong, the executive director of PACT Canada — an organization that strives to engage young people by connecting them with existing networks or help them form their own — suggests this strategy might be a winner.

"The reality is that young people are bombarded by information, most of it negative and pessimistic," Masongson says. And it comes as they are already feeling overwhelmed by trying to start their own lives.

"That's why, I believe that young people feel they don't have all the facts to cast an informed ballot: they feel hopeless in their ability to make a difference, are so overwhelmed they don't know where to begin to do the research on the important issues, and are nervous to make the wrong choice when voting."

That said, Masongsong believes that young people do care about their future and that's why more and more young people are becoming involved with local grassroots issues — often environmental in nature — that they can relate to more easily.

Indeed, in my own experiences, providing simple ways for young people to become engaged in an issue — like writing a letter to a policy maker that can yield a small success like a response — will build their confidence and help restore or create hope that they have the power to affect change.

Connect the dots

In fact, the Canadian Policy Research Networks came out with a study on Thursday that underscores this argument, stating: "Many (young people) now choose to opt out of traditional political participation including being active in political parties.

"They choose instead to work on specific issues and causes, often through advocacy and non-profit organizations, believing more substantive results can be realized."

The result is a large number of young people who are politically active in grassroots environmental initiatives, but don't vote for a perceived lack of knowledge around how their vote might alter the issue they're so passionate about.

And the environmental community is working hard to help connect the dots. Organizations are starting to find youth-accessible ways to link popular causes to the ballot box.

For example, the International Fund for Animal Welfare launched to encourage voters to find out the stance of their candidate on the issue of the commercial hunt for harp seals off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

The goal of the site is to tie a politician's electoral success to its support for stopping the hunt - a movement that is popular among the majority of Canadians, especially young people.

And there are other examples from coast to coast, like, a Quebec group that is trying to prevent the transmission of oilsands products through Quebec and is working up an online campaign to oppose it.

It's environmental politics by piecemeal and with a pool of young voters engaged passionately in an issue and just looking for a reason to vote. As the Dominion Institute's Chalifoux said, "There's a number of close ridings and close races where the youth vote, if properly mobilized, could make all the difference."