QJ Politics: Why don’t youth vote?

For pollsters and political scientists alike, the biggest indicator of voter turnout is your age. Youth don’t vote and they never have, according to Statistics Canada.

There are several reasons for this: we don’t feel voting is a civil duty in the same way our parents do, we feel we simply don’t know enough about politics and are just genuinely disinterested.

To some extent, this does makes sense: youth are less likely to vote precisely because they’re youth, who are typically dependents, generally unaffected by taxes, mortgages rates, trade regulations and whatever else is debated in our city halls, provincial legislatures and on the Hill. However, what doesn’t make sense is the fallout generationally.

While youth have historically declined to make it to the ballot box, this is more true today than it was before. A study by McGill University’s Elisabeth Gidengil shows that when the baby boomers were our age, turnout was significantly higher. Today, youth are significantly less likely to vote than our parents and grandparents when they were our age.

For some this may seem unsettling, but for political scientists that care about democracy, this is terrifying. Voting is habitual, which means as youth continue to not vote, get older and eventually replace older voting generations, there is a very real potential we go from a short-term crisis in representation to a long-term crisis in our democracy.

This is especially troubling considering education is also positively correlated with voter turnout. Yet we see declining turnout despite today’s youth being the most educated of any other previous cohort. And here’s the rub: it isn’t the educated youth that are voting less, it’s youth that are less advantaged and uneducated that miss the vote on Election Day.

So why are they apathetic and indifferent? Why aren’t they participating in politics?

Here we are met with one of the most interesting paradoxes surrounding today’s youth: we aren’t making it to the polls, but we aren’t apathetic either. We may not vote, but we’re more likely than our parents to sign a petition, boycott or literally take our politics to the streets in protest.

Paradoxically, we care about politics, but we are disinclined to pursue formal and traditional avenues to express it. Which means there is something about electoral politics that turns off Canadian youth.

However we aren’t just turned off from politics. Youth are certainly dissatisfied, with Elections Canada showing that three out of five youth say that politicians don’t care about what they think.

However, this disaffection isn’t especially true for youth. In fact, studies suggest the opposite is true — that Canadian youth are less pessimistic than the average voter.

Rather, youth are not as turned off from politics as they are tuned out. We are less interested and know much less than the average Canadian when it comes to Canadian politics. But to suggest Canadian youth are the root of the problem is to misdiagnose the issue of low youth engagement entirely. Every generation of youth has performed increasingly poorer when it comes to voting than the previous generation of youth, which is to say something about our politics isn’t the same.

There was a time where Canadian political parties were nation-building, consensus-oriented organizations.

From our universal healthcare to R.B. Bennett’s Wheat Board and Bank of Canada, to Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, brokerage politics was effectively the mantra of Canadian government in the 20th century.

The Canadian political party today is no longer nation-building. The death of brokerage politics has arrived, and instead parties are, as the Toronto Star’s Susan Delacourt writes, shopping for votes: where parties target voters on much more refined scale, in niche communities and individually.

For any democrat, this prospect should be frightening: if political parties are targeting would-be voters, there is a very large possibility of a systematic lack of participation of specific groups of citizens — youth. Unfortunately, this fear is being born in Canada with pollsters, politicians and their parties ignoring those groups that don’t vote historically.

The art of politics is today, more than ever, a well-practiced, research-intensive and highly technical science.

If there’s any indication, it’s your local MP’s schedule, especially during election season: you’ll see more retirement homes, cultural centres and churches than universities or shelters.

The attention given to richer communities, educated communities and ethnic communities comes at the cost of further alienating less-advantaged youth, giving them less reason to vote, let alone pay any attention. We’re voting much less because parties today have excluded youth as a matter of electoral strategy. Youth aren’t being represented — intentionally.

In the short-term, this is a crisis of representation and in the long-term, we’ll see only a democracy for some. And a democracy for some is no democracy at all.

For now, politicians may be able to win elections while ignoring us, but as soon as some begin to listen, the politicians late to the party will be in for a rude awakening: only the early politician will get our votes.

This article is owed in its entirety to the research of Dr. Heather Bastedo, Skeleton-Clark Post-doctoral fellow at Queen’s University and co-author of Canadian Democracy from the Ground Up: Perceptions and Performance (2014).

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