That elusive youth vote…

Few groups are trying to get young people out to vote. It is a welcome change

On Saturday, the Ottawa Citizen published a story about how in contrast to elections past, there are relatively few groups trying to get young people out to vote. “There were probably about 20 organizations encouraging young people in the 2004 election. Now there’s only about three,” says Ilona Dougherty of Apathy is Boring. In addition to her group, Dougherty cites The Dominion Institute and Student Vote, as the only organizations who are really trying to get young people engaged.

The decline in youth voter organizations has resulted in fewer news stories being written about the issue. Either that, or the media has simply lost interest as University of Calgary political scientist Brenda O’Neil suggested to the Citizen. Whatever the reason for the relative dearth in coverage about how our democracy is going to implode if political institutions don’t somehow find a way to make the system more relevant to young people, it is a welcome change in the election narrative. What is a youth issue anyway?

Last fall, the Canadian Policy Research Networks (CPRN) released a report titled Lost in Translation: (Mis)Understanding Youth Engagement. The CPRN argued that, “Youth are not disconnected from politics . . . It is political institutions, practice and culture that are disconnected from youth.” Engagement in consumer advocacy, protests, and other forms of non-traditional participation are cited to support the CPRN’s claims.

But if you look at the data, people who are engaged in non-traditional forms of political participation are also most likely to vote. As O’Neil told the Citizen: “People who aren’t voting aren’t doing other things.” What’s more, while the youth demographic as a whole votes in numbers as low as 40-45 per cent, the university educated young vote in numbers as high as 70 per cent.

Nearly everyone who studies participation is in agreement on a few key points. Specifically, people are more likely to vote, in fact as much as 15 per cent more likely, as they age and issues such as taxation become more relevant. There is nothing to suggest that disengaged 20-year-olds will become disengaged 40-year-olds.

But this doesn’t account for the reality that younger cohorts in total are about 10 per cent less likely to vote than they were in the 1960s. The CPRN assures us that this is because they are less politically literate when it comes to traditional politics, but this is misleading.

Part of the answer does lie within the CPRN report, that membership in political parties is much lower than it use to be. While the CPRN takes this to be one of their defining illustrations of the retreat from politics, it is much more likely that this is illustrative of weakened party structures. For instance, people are more likely to vote if candidates speak to them directly but “get out the vote” campaigns and door to door campaigning are not as prevalent as they once were.

Weakened party structures has been accompanied with weakened party identification, meaning that in the past people didn’t necessarily have to think about who they would vote for, they just knew. So, it is entirely possible that young people in the 1960s were just as politically illiterate and unaware as they are today. It is the party system, and party identification that is different.