The power of the student vote

Young people hold the power this federal election—if they choose to use it

The 2021 snap election is unlikely to see high youth turnout.
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On Sept. 20, Canadians will be heading to the polls for the second time in two years. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the snap election on Aug. 15.

This election puts many undergrad students in an unexpected position. For those who turned 18 after the 2019 federal election, this will be the first election they’re eligible to vote in. For many students, this means scrambling to decide who to vote for, figure out where to vote, and how to cast their ballot in a limited time frame.

Students are figuring this out all while attending in-person classes for the first time in over a year. The pressure is enough to make some students wonder if voting is worth it at all.

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Youth voting rates have always been low in Canada. Even in elections with high turnout rates, 18- to 24-year-olds are the demographic least likely to make it to the polling station. In the 2019 federal election, the voter turnout rate for 18- to 24-year-olds was 25 per cent lower than the turnout for 65- to 74-year-olds.

In Canada, 18-year-olds couldn’t vote in federal elections until 1970. Prior to this change, Canadians had to be 21 to cast a ballot.

Dropping the voting age to 18 had been hotly debated for decades before the 70s. This movement likely began as a result of WWII, with Canadians questioning why 18-year-olds who went to war for this country couldn't vote for their leader. The debate over 18-year-olds voting in federal elections continued for decades. By 1970, however, the bill that lowered the voting age passed without much argument or backlash.

But just because 18-year-olds could vote didn’t mean they rushed to the polls.

Voting rates have plummeted across all age groups. In the 1970s and 80s, federal elections routinely saw voter participation at 70 per cent or higher. The 1990s saw a steep drop-off in voting rates, with turnout reaching an all-time low of 59 per cent in 2008. What remains the same in every election is that the youngest generation is the least likely to participate.

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Claire Christie, Con-Ed ’24, will be voting for the first time in the 2021 election. Excited to get involved, she signed up to be a poll worker in this year’s election. In her new role, peers have had questions for her about the voting process.

“People have been asking me questions and I don’t even have the answers.” Christie said.

In the past two elections, voting on campus was made relatively easy. The Vote on Campus program was introduced in 2015 and was accompanied by an increased rate of young people going to the polls. The program allowed students to cast ballots from their university campus to their home ridings.

The Vote on Campus program was suspended in the fall of 2020, so Elections Canada could allocate resources to other services during the pandemic. With this election, students won’t have this option, which made student voting far easier in the last two elections.

Without the Vote on Campus program in place, many students have been left with little to no information on how to cast a ballot.

“I think that taking away the on-campus voting was a major deterrent for many students,” Christie said.

While Christie says voting is a personal choice, she believes that academic institutions should do more to promote voting.

“I think that there’s a lot of like information that wasn’t really spread on campus, especially with people who wanted to mail in ballots to their riding at home. There just wasn’t a whole lot of information on how to register, and I feel like the university itself didn’t give enough of a push to ask their students to vote.”

While you must be 18 years old to vote in a federal election, you don’t have to be 18 to prepare to vote. Elections Canada opened The Register of Future Electors in 2019, which allows youth as young as 14 to register to vote early.

Those who add their name and information to the Register of Future Electors, are automatically added to the National Register of Electors on their 18th birthday. This sets them up to receive a voting card automatically in the first federal election in which they’re an eligible voter.

Making voting simple is an important part of ensuring a population remains civically engaged. Those who vote in the first election in which they are eligible are likely to be a lifelong voter

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18- to 34-year-olds are the largest voting bloc in this federal election. If more young people make it to the polls, there could be a serious impact on the results.

The Federal Mock Student Election in 2019 showed how different the election results may have looked if minors were in charge. Over 1.1 million students from elementary to high school voted in the mock election from over 7,000 schools in Canada. In the student election, the Liberal party still won a minority government. However, the New Democratic Party (NDP) won the popular vote with 24.8 per cent of the ballots.

Students and young people turning out to vote would benefit all parties, but especially the NDP. In 18- to 34-year-olds, the NDP had an 11 point lead over Liberals in voting intentions as reported by Léger in January of 2021.

36 per cent of 18- to 34-year-olds polled reported they would be voting for the New Democratic Party in the next federal election. This is followed by the Liberals and Conservatives, who received 25 per cent and 22 per cent of 18- to 34-year-old voting intention, respectively. Other polls by Ipsos and Abacus Data had the Liberals slightly ahead of the NDP in voting intentions of the 18-34 age bracket.

While these polls have higher uncertainties, they shed light on the broader trend of younger generations preferring left-wing political ideologies.

The polling numbers of older generations look much different from the 18- to 34-year-old bloc. The 35- to 54-year-old age group leans Liberal, with 41 per cent of those polled reporting they will vote Liberal in the next election. Conservatives follow with 27 per cent of the 35- to 54-year-old vote—the NDP polls at 18 per cent.

These numbers shift even further with voters over 55.  Liberals lead the Conservatives by only 4 points in this age group, with NDP receiving only 13 per cent of the predicted vote.

Students and young people are often seen as being apathetic towards voting. To some, it seems youth believe their vote doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things.

This isn’t true, according to Christie.

“As only one person in this huge country it can feel like ‘oh I’m not making a difference’ but at the end of the day, we are the difference.”

Individual votes can make a world of difference. In the 2019 election, the closest ridings were decided by tenths of a percentage point—mere hundreds of votes.

In the 2008, 2011, and 2015 federal elections, non-voters surveyed on why they chose not to vote cited “everyday life issues” as the leading reason for not making it to the polls. This indicates that when life gets in the way, voting isn’t always a priority. The pressure of the pandemic, as well as general confusion on how the voting process works, could easily deter students from making it to the polls this September.

Still, students should consider the benefits of voting, even if the process may be inconvenient. As the largest group of eligible voters in Canada, Millennials and Generation Z have the capacity to create real, tangible change in Canada’s Parliament.

If students and youth are willing to overcome the barriers to voting, they could make enough impact that Canadian political parties would have no choice but to prioritize young people and their future.

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