Apathy is Boring volunteers and staff sell t-shirts in Montreal. Seated left to right are Patrick Burkhard, Avigail Aronoff and Natalie Deschamps. ((Courtesy of Apathy is Boring))

Tahir Jaffer, 23, makes it his mission to head to the polls every election.

The masters of applied science student at Toronto's Ryerson University believes exercising his right to vote is a duty all young Canadians should adopt.

"When you vote, you get to voice your opinion on how you want the country -- the government -- run, which is pretty important," Jaffer says.

Jaffer's determination to vote puts him in a minority. While he makes sure to mark a ballot, the majority of young Canadians don't head to the polls come election day.

According to Elections Canada, only 44 per cent of 18-24-year-olds voted in the 2006 general election. That number is considerably lower than the national turnout of 64.7 per cent.

It's a number some grassroots organizations like Apathy is Boring, a national, non-partisan youth group and the Dominion Institute, a Toronto-based national charity, warn will only increase as those youth age. It is their fear that as those youth get older they will create a society of apathetic, couldn't-care-what-party-is-in-power voters.

And young voter apathy isn't a Canadian-specific issue.

In the States, organizations like Rock the Vote might attract attention for their partnerships with well-known musicians and celebrities such as Madonna and Snoop Dogg, but the situation is similar to Canada: the majority of American youth don't vote.

Only 47 per cent of American youth aged 18-24 voted in the 2004 presidential election, according to U.S. Census data. Sixty-four per cent was the national voter turnout. According to a report by Circle, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, Rock the Vote estimates approximately 44 million 18-29-year-olds will be eligible to vote in the Nov. 4 presidential election.


Ilona Dougherty, co-founder and executive director of Apathy is Boring. ((Courtesy of Apathy is Boring))

So, why don't youth vote? Is it because they don't care about politics? Or a deeper issue?

Ilona Dougherty, 28, co-founder and executive director of Apathy is Boring, tackles those questions and more.

Why don't youth vote? What are their reasons?

Dougherty: Voting is a habit. Voting is something that if you don't start when you are 18 the likelihood is that you will never do it. There is a new generation of Canadian youth that are not getting into the habit of voting for several reasons. Firstly, they don't have the information they need about how the process works and why their vote counts. They also aren't always informed about how to vote, and more often than not they don't know who to vote for, and they don't feel represented. Youth don't connect with the political leaders because those leaders aren't speaking about issues that matter to them. It is not a matter of youth being apathetic per se but rather that they aren't connecting with traditional institutions, such as government, as they don't feel like these institution make a difference in their lives.

Why don't minority youth vote? What are their reasons? Do their reasons differ from Canadian youth in general?

Dougherty: Youth in communities where poverty and discrimination is the norm have even less access to the resources needed to make an informed decision about voting, and they often feel even less connected to the democratic process. When survival and issues such as violence and poverty are a day-to-day reality, it is easy to understand how these young people can feel disconnected from what is going on during an election campaign or on Parliament Hill. Voting just doesn't seem as urgent as making sure there is food on the table or that you are safe. Unfortunately the reality is that voting and the decisions made in Ottawa do impact these basic things, and these young people are giving up their voice, by not voting.

Do you feel that if youth don't vote now, they will not vote when they get older?  Why?

Dougherty: Statistically, studies have found that if youth don't vote now they won't vote when they get older. This is in part because voting is a habit, and also because if one doesn't feel it is important to be an active citizen when you are young, then when you get older and more accustomed to certain ways of doing things it is unlikely that someone would make a commitment to voting later in life.

Why is it important for youth to vote?

Dougherty: It is important [for] youth to vote because the decisions that are made by elected leaders affect them. The voice of almost an entire generation of young Canadians is not being heard, and as a result the issues that are being dealt with in Parliament are not reflecting the opinions and concerns of youth.

We have only had parliamentary democracy in Canada for the last 250 years. That is not a very long time. If we look 20 or 30 years into the future, it is quite possible that given current voting rates that only 30 to 40 per cent of the entire population will be voting. I consider that a democratic crisis. We need to make every effort to avoid that crisis, and we need to ensure that youth know the importance of voting now.

Why are Canada's youth disengaged in politics?

Dougherty: Youth are disengaged in politics because they don't see the connection between what happens in Ottawa and what they are going through in their day-to-day lives. Politics seems boring, and negative, and politics doesn't seem to lead to real change. Youth want to feel like what they do matters, and so often youth are used for a photo [opportunity] and although their opinions may be listened to, it doesn't result in real actions, which is understandably frustrating.

What are some of the best ways to reach out to youth?

Dougherty: To reach out to youth, you have to go to where young people are, and you have to be honest, and willing to listen. Just like everyone else, youth want to feel like politicians have made the effort to meet them halfway, and to really listen to what they have to say. It is important to use technology to reach out to youth, but what is more important addressing issues that matter to youth during a campaign.

Do you feel political parties and candidates reach out to youth?

Dougherty: They do to some degree. But it is a vicious cycle. If youth don't vote, then politicians don't feel like they need to make the effort to reach out to them, and because politicians don't make this effort then as a result youth continue to not vote. Reaching out to youth doesn't just mean having a Facebook page. It means really making sure that a candidate's campaign or a political party's activities are accessible to youth, and that youth feel like they can make a difference if they get involved.

What can political parties do to better reach out to youth?

Dougherty: Internet: Outreaching online doesn't have to be expensive or hard. Some major campaigns have been better than others at adapting their outreach activities to the web.  In this day and age, it's a must for recruiting efforts. Start with a Facebook page or a blog. But remember, the key is to keep it up to date. These tools are conversations and a conversation requires ongoing input from all sides.

Go where youth go: Technology is great but nothing beats good old-fashioned face-to-face interaction. Arrange meetings with youth in your community so that they can voice their concerns and ask you questions. Make sure to find a locale that is easily accessible to youth - no out-of-the-way conference centres or places not accessible by public transit.

Advertise: Want youth on your campaign team? Make sure they're aware that you're looking for them by taking advantage of free listings in local nightlife papers and magazines, university or college job banks, websites and student organizations.

Be youth friendly: Nothing's more annoying (or ineffective) than the stereotypical politician out there holding babies and making grandiose promises. Make sure to talk to young people like they really matter.

Why is it crucial to teach youth the importance of voting?

Dougherty: Teaching youth about voting is only the first step. We also need to help young people understand that their vote counts, and that voting is only the first step to being an active citizen. The history of voting can only take us so far. We need to ensure that youth understand that they can be decision makers now, and that their vote counts.