How to increase youth participation in municipal elections

Even though municipalities are responsible for nearly 60 per cent of public infrastructure and take care of recreation programs, public transit, and green spaces, voter turnout for municipal elections is the lowest among the three major levels of government.

Making a connection between the issues and the government is key, expert says

Caro Loutfi, executive director of Apathy is Boring, says municipal elections are arguably the ones people should pay most attention to since it affects them in the most direct ways. (CBC)

It's a familiar refrain — regardless of who you're voting for, make sure you get out and vote.

If the advance polls are any indication, more people may cast a ballot in today's municipal elections than four years ago.

At least in Montreal, 7.98 per cent of eligible Montrealers turned up for advance voting. In 2013, the turnout was 5.58 per cent.

Muncipalities are responsible for nearly 60 per cent of public infrastructure, according to Quebec's director general of elections. They also take care of recreational programs, public transit, green spaces — but voter turnout for municipal elections is the lowest among the three major levels of government.

"Sometimes it's confusing that it's the level of government that young people — actually, all Canadians — are the least engaged in, because it's actually the one that arguably we should be the most engaged in," said Caro Loutfi, executive director of Apathy is Boring, a project that aims to increase youth political participation.

She said they are trying to help young people identify the issues they care about and make the connection with the level of government that deals with those issues.

For the first time, children in Montreal will get a chance to vote during Sunday's municipal election with a practice question. (Bob Edme/Associated Press)

But it's not very often that people have informal conversations — around the dinner table or in a classroom, for example — about how municipal government affects our lives.

"That's both a responsibility of our education system but also us as a society...How do we show that government has a huge impact on all sorts of issues that we care about?"

Getting young people to engage

It's worrisome people aren't stepping up to participate in elections by running for office, said Loutfi — 214 municipalities in Quebec won't be having an election today because the candidates were acclaimed.

One thing her group looks at is the number of young people running for office and the numbers are encouraging on that front.

Loutfi said 20 per cent of candidates running in Montreal are under the age of 35, which is one of the highest figures she's seen.

"We're hoping that things like this will get more people recognizing that they can run for office," she said.

But in general, it's a vicious cycle, Loutfi said — politicians don't reach out to young people because young people don't vote, and they don't vote because they don't feel like people care about them.

She said engagement is a two-way street. Both sides have to step up in order to see a shift in the status quo. She's curious to see what impact of the mini polling booths for children, new this year, will have.

Municipalities are responsible for public transit, recreation programs and green spaces. (Charles Contant/CBC)

There is a silver lining, however — they have found that once young people come to the realization that municipal government matters, they're likely to stay engaged, and engage with other levels of government too.

Loutfi said she has hope the overall turnout will be higher than the 43 per cent of voters who showed up in 2013, but that there is still a lot of work to be done for the future.

"We're encouraging every young person to reach out, bring their friends to the polls, talk to their peers, and get out today."

With files from CBC's All in a Weekend