Elections NWT hopes to boost young adult turnout in 2019 election

The territory’s elections agency is stepping up efforts to get young people to the polls this October in hopes of improving on a poor showing in the last election.

80% of people aged 18 to 35 did not make it to the polls in 2015 territorial election

N.W.T. Chief Electoral Officer Nicole Latour, left, and youth programs co-ordinator Nara Dapilos at the elections agency's office in Yellowknife. (Ryan Patrick Jones/CBC)

The Northwest Territories' elections agency is stepping up efforts to get young people to the polls this October, in the hopes of improving on a poor showing in the last federal election.

A co-ordinated social media campaign, a physical presence at community events, free election swag, and recruiting young people as poll workers and outreach workers are just some of the strategies Elections NWT is undertaking to spread awareness and influence young people to vote.

The main message the organization wants to send: young people can make a difference.

"We're essentially wanting them to understand that the government is shaping the North and their future, that they should have a hand in shaping the government," said Nicole Latour, chief electoral officer of the N.W.T.

"If they all did come out to the polls, they collectively are very influential."

Young adult turnout low in 2015

The agency has a difficult task ahead of it, as voter turnout among young adults for the 2015 election was extremely low.

In a report released in May, Elections NWT found that 2,411 people between the ages of 18 and 35 voted, out of a total of 12,042 eligible voters or 20 per cent. 

Voters in Yellowknife were the biggest no-shows. Out of the seven electoral districts that make up the territorial capital, only 16.7 per cent of young adults came out to vote. Total voter turnout in the territorial election was 44 per cent. 

Latour said the issue is a lack of awareness among young adults.

"I don't think in the North we've been particularly good about providing the information to young adults," said Latour. "At 16, they know they can get a driver's licence, and at 19 they know they can get into a licensed establishment, but nobody seems to know that at 18 you become an eligible elector."

Youth ambassador program

Elections NWT wants young people take the lead in promoting awareness, said Nara Dapilos, who is responsible for co-ordinating the agency's youth programs.

"It's important that we kind of empower each other as youth … that we see people our age engaging and voting and participating," she said.

To that end, Elections NWT is recruiting "youth engagement ambassadors" from each community across the N.W.T. to start conversations with young people on social media and at community events about the details of the election: how to register, where and when to vote, and the importance of voting.

The youth ambassadors will be in place during the writ period from Sept. 2 until election day on Oct. 1 and will receive a $500 stipend for their efforts.

Elections NWT will also hire people between the ages of 18 and 24 to work as poll workers on voting day. Latour said she hopes this will have a ripple effect and they will encourage their friends and family to vote.

The agency has also started the hashtag #TruantNoMore in the hopes of spreading awareness on social media. 

"'Truant no more' is basically just a statement saying, 'We are going to vote, we are combating absenteeism and we are going to participate,'" said Dapilos.

Beyond engaging youth, Latour said recent changes to the electoral process, including the introduction of online voting, a longer voting period, and the launch of a new website, Electorhood — a digital platform that allows voters to track the progress of the election in real time — will help reduce barriers to voting and influence more people of all ages to cast their ballots.

Latour says she hopes a public information campaign will drive better voter turnout in the coming territorial election. (Avery Zingel)

Northern challenges

Jerald Sabin, a politics professor at Bishop's University in Sherbrooke, Que., who studies northern politics, said communities in the North face particular challenges when it comes to electoral participation, from the consensus governance system to demographics.

"The absence of political parties really places a high informational burden on voters to learn about the issues and to learn about where each candidate in their riding stands," said Sabin. "They can be a barrier to people feeling comfortable to vote."

Sabin said the "high turnover" among the settler population in the territory is another factor.

"With people moving into Yellowknife, and then moving back out for job opportunities or for education, it means that people haven't put down the roots necessary to participate in the electoral system," he said.

"It takes a while to establish yourself in the community, to get engaged in politics, and to become interested in participating."

Latour believes Elections NWT can overcome these challenges. 

"The more that [young people] engage their friends and they come out and have discussions amongst themselves and decide who's the best representation for them, the more that they play a role in what happens in the future of the North," she said.