Blame boomers for low turnout

Political favour leans towards the large and more influential baby boom generation, leaving youth voters disengaged and disinterested

Supporters gather around the TV at John Gerretsen's campaign office in Kingston on Oct. 6.
Supporters gather around the TV at John Gerretsen's campaign office in Kingston on Oct. 6.
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Ontario’s Oct. 6 provincial election that saw Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals form a minority government had a voter turnout of 49 per cent — the lowest in the province’s history.

The result in Ontario is just the latest in a series of provincial elections around the country where the voter turnout has been unexpectedly low.

The Globe and Mail reported that record lows — or close to it — were experienced this fall in Manitoba at 56 per cent and Newfoundland and Labrador at 58 per cent. Even the 76 per cent turnout in Prince Edward Island on Oct. 3 was the lowest since 1966, when they started tracking the statistic.

This was mirrored in the federal election earlier this year, where a 61 per cent turnout was Canada’s second-lowest in history — better only than 2008’s 58 per cent.

Unfortunately, declining voter turnout isn’t a new trend. Much hand-wringing and panic over the issue has beset journalists, academics, politicians and other political elites ever since the trend became clear in the late ’90s.

The cause? A clear demographic analysis shows that every generation to vote for the first time after turning 18 does so in lower numbers than the generation before. The explanations of why are diverse, but can be illustrated with immaculate precision in the recent Ontario election.

Canada’s younger voters, in stark contrast to the baby boom generation that came before, are increasingly motivated by what many social scientists refer to as post-materialist values.

People who exhibit post-materialist values worry less about material wealth and accumulation and become more focused on issues such as justice, equality, tolerance, intellectual satisfaction and, more recently, environmentalism. These values rise in prominence in a society where most people can take their basic material needs for granted.

The problem for young voters is that post-materialist issues aren’t a significant area of focus in modern election campaigns.

Consider the Ontario election. Many have noted that the campaign seemed allergic to sweeping new ideas or risk. It was almost as if party leaders were competing to see whose vision of economic stability or pocket-book electioneering was more safe and boring.

Any attempt to put forward a more values-based vision — think, perhaps, of Dalton McGuinty’s meekly expressed penchants for green energy and education — was bombarded with claims from opposing parties that such movements would devastate our economy and move us into deeper recession.

So if isolated young people represent a massive, untapped pile of voters, why aren’t political parties snapping them up? The explanation is again a demographic one: young voters are outnumbered by a politically-mobilized, engaged and persuasive baby boom generation.

Due to their massive comparative size, political favour has always followed the baby boom generation. After benefiting in their youth from the most permissive social welfare state ever, the baby boomers moved into career employment and the years where most people’s dependence on government services declines.

The result was a gutting of the welfare state, lower taxes and a greater reliance on the private sector. Now, as boomers enter their golden years, the focus is on retirement interests: economic stability, retirement savings and heath care.

Meanwhile, the interests and post-materialist focus of youth voters are left in the cold.

In an economic recession these problems are only exacerbated. When baby boomers’ retirement plans are jeopardized, they freak out and take their fears to government. Youth, on the other hand, lack the political mobilization or persuasion to register their claims with policymakers.

There’s a common wisdom in the study of elections that’s also worth considering: increased frequency of elections leads to lower voter turnouts in the form of voter fatigue. The logic is that calling too frequently on voters to focus their attention on political matters causes them to shy away from participating.

Certainly, Canadians from coast-to-coast have faced numerous elections at various levels of government over the last year. That being said, the assumption that politics is inherently tiresome is a problematic one. Few people tire of an engaging TV show or a favourite sport, for example.

Election congestion is only problematic if elections repeatedly fail at engaging voters.

Voting behaviour is formed early and sticks with us for life. If we keep teaching young voters that the issues they care about won’t be addressed, we can expect them to stay away. Indeed, even a single election of change cannot be expected to have a long-lasting impact on turnout as these habits are heavily engrained.

No single politician in recent years has better represented this split than Rob Ford.

Ford’s successful campaign for mayor of Toronto in 2010 promised fiscal prudence and a better deal for the suburbs — the Shangri-La of materialist living — but, perhaps more importantly, it also took aggressive pot shots at the so-called “artsy-fartsy” post-materialist value set.

The result? A 53 per cent voter turnout, up from 35 per cent in Toronto’s last mayoral election in 2006.

Ford mobilized voters both for and against him by providing an unabashedly clear choice between these two value sets. A similar dynamic will likely exist in the next election when voters are asked to judge how his perspective has played out.

The problem young voters face is that, for the foreseeable future, the baby boomers will have a demographic advantage both in votes and in representation in the bodies of government.

Until the generational shift occurs, I see little hope for the mobilization of young voters. This means that those entering politics now are likely to be a sort of lost generation.

I patiently, but pessimistically, await any political party or leader at any level of government that is willing to prove me wrong.

Iain Reeve is a PhD candidate in the Queen’s department of political studies.

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