Move aside boomers, we're heading to the ballot box

For the first time in several elections, Canada's young voters seem politically engaged. But we may not be looking at the real reasons why, Simon Jackson says.

For the first time in recent electoral history, young voters are actually getting some real public attention.

Significant numbers of Canadians under 30 have been seen at political speeches and voting at special, advanced polls. As well, the so-called youth vote has been the subject of news articles in mainstream media and the spark for flash mobs at university campuses from coast to coast.

Even the leaders' debate featured a question on youth engagement. Still, the youth vote has mainly been at the centre of this campaign for all the wrong reasons.

The flash mobs of non-partisan youth were set up to create pressure on their peers to vote. But they have been covered by the press essentially because the organizers of one of the events weren't allowed to attend a Conservative rally featuring Stephen Harper.

There was also the story about hundreds of students at the University of Guelph showing up to vote at a special advanced polling station.

Remarkable in its own right, the story made headlines because the Tories asked for the votes not to be counted, claiming certain procedural rules had been broken.

As for that debate question? It revolved around why the Conservatives kicked a young political observer, Awish Aslam, out of a rally after organizers found a photo of her and Michael Ignatieff on her Facebook page.

You can see the theme.

The Liberal narrative

The sad thing here is that young people are getting a larger-than-usual piece of the election spotlight, but not because of what appears to be their increasing appetite to engage.

A member of the so-called flash mob from Guelph University at a Conservative event in April 2011, urging young people to get out and vote. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

By and large, it is because every story has fit with the Liberal campaign narrative that the Harper-led Tories are undemocratic and bunkered.

Without the Liberal spin machine in full force, you have to assume unique events like flash mobs and successful advanced polls on university campuses would not have made the headlines.

And that's unfortunate because what has really made these events stand out is that they are both youth driven and largely without a political axe to grind.

'You're outta here'

Usually at election time the only young voters we see are from the small, hyper-partisan, party youth wings.

In the case of the first and most high-profile flash mob at Guelph, the student initiative was non-partisan and beyond reproach.

If anyone tried to convey a party or ideological message, they were kicked out of the group with a Bronx-style "you're outta here!" shout.

What's more, aside from trying to peer-pressure their friends to vote, they were also trying to remind politicians that this oft-neglected voting bloc is available to be wooed.

That message was somewhat lost in the ensuing partisan bickering, but are politicians heeding it even a little bit?

The Tories largely believe that youth tilt heavily left, which is somewhat true but ignores an increasingly large base of fiscally conservative, environmentally conscious young people.

While the Liberals, for all of their hyperbole, will largely use their strong and passionate youth wing to put up campaign signs, knock on doors, and phone-bank potential (adult) voters.

Hashtags and hard left

Of the old-line parties, the NDP probably has the most youth-friendly campaign. Jack Layton even went so far as to use pop-culture references such as bling, hashtag, and fail in the debate.

Still, it came across as trying too hard and while the NDP apparently believe they have the most to gain from youth participation, the reality is that today's young people are much more multi-partisan than they are hard left.

The Green's Elizabeth May would certainly benefit from a sympathetic youth vote, attuned to the environment. Remember students propelled her into a profile-enhancing second when she ran in that London by-election in 2006.

This time, however, May's running in an environmentally conscious swing riding on Vancouver Island, but one that is noticeably shy of a large youth voting base.

Of course, at the end of the day, all parties will tell you that their get-out-the-vote efforts are best spent on those who are guaranteed to show up on election day — seniors, specific ethnic communities, soccer moms.

For this reality, youth have no one to blame but themselves.

The balance of power

The other reality here is that if every young person in this country voted, we would hold the balance of power in the vast majority of the close races.

Think about that: Young people could cast the deciding ballots and would have more votes than almost any other key voting bloc that parties rely on to win.

Wooing seniors or wooing the young? Jack Layton, on a swing through Quebec City ridings, seems to want to do both. But the calculation often comes down to an assessment of who will vote. (Reuters)

But as things now stand youth have ceded their democratic right and, as a result, their potential as a power base.

In talking to my peers about politics, I find that many still fall back on the tired clichés that all political leaders are corrupt and that one vote doesn't count.

And between this election's attack ads and endless campaign rhetoric about the democratic failings of one leader or another, it only seems there are more reasons for young people to hate politics.

Still, it really does appear that more young people are taking it upon themselves to become politically engaged and you have to ask, why now? Why this election?

Partly, I think, it is because groups like Apathy is Boring have worked tirelessly to create a culture of voting responsibility. Social media also gets an assist.

The quick — and free — means of connecting to not only friends but the like-minded has allowed for relatively easy mobilization around a specific action.

But don't discount the heightened social awareness of a generation that has too often taken voting for granted.

Between the 24-hour media cycle, RRS feeds, news aggregating websites and social media, young people are more connected to world events than ever before.

From Tunisia to Egypt and Libya, Canada's young people have watched their peers stand up by the thousands for their one precious vote and to have a say in the running of their country.

That is not something you can just let wash over you and then go back to your video games or a shrug of indifference, at least not when an election is called.

Still, no matter the motivation, the flash-mobbing young people who have attracted the media spotlight in this campaign are not only doing critical work that must be championed, they are also the best hope for getting out the youth vote.

On May 2 we'll find out if anyone was listening to the real message.