But university students do vote

Just because voter turnout is low for 'youth' doesn't mean it is low for all youth

Over here, Jacob makes the claim that tuition protests don’t work because “students don’t vote in elections.” Is this true? It is certainly a widely held belief that appears to be backed up by voter participation rates. But, while only 37.4 per cent of those aged 18-24 voted in the 2008 election, that doesn’t mean students, as a general subset of this age group, are as allergic to ballot boxes as other young people. In fact, the data we have suggests students are loyal voters.

In 2003, Electoral Insight published a study by a group of political scientists, led by McGill’s Elisabeth Gidengil, that tracked the decline in voter participation. The data, where the 2000 federal election is the latest to be considered, is admittedly dated, but voting trends haven’t changed all that much in the past decade. The pivotal election that saw voter turnout begin to rapidly decline was the 1993 poll.

Consistent with pretty much everything else that has been published on this topic, the authors demonstrate a steady drop in participation among young voters, particularly those born after 1970.

When accounting for education level, however, they conclude: “it is a serious misconception to suppose that it is the highly educated young who are failing to turn up at the polls. On the contrary, the more education young people have, the more likely they are to vote.”

To illustrate they show while participation has dropped off a cliff for those with lower levels of education, the university educated young continue to vote in the same, very high, numbers as they always have.

The 2000 Canadian Election Study reveals that turnout in the youngest generation was almost 50 points higher among university graduates than it was among those who left school without a high school diploma. Furthermore, the decline is confined to those with less than a university education. Since the 1993 general election, turnout has fallen over 30 points among those with less than a high school education and 15 points or more among those who have completed high school and/or some college. Meanwhile, turnout has held steady among young university graduates.

A caveat needs to be added. The authors of the study are referring to “university graduates” not university students. But in 1993, the oldest university educated cohort for this age group would have been 23. It’s possible that those who were 20 or 21, and still in school, voted at the same level as high school dropouts, but that seems unlikely.

(UPDATE: Another study conducted by the same authors breaks up groups by lesser, middle, and better educated, and predicts likelihood of voting. Turnout for lesser educated youth at age 20 is predicted to be 29 per cent. For the middle educated it is 43 per cent, and for the better educated at age 20, it is 58 per cent, which is comparable to total voter turnout for the general population.)

The common refrain, these numbers imply, that university students don’t vote just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

Now, the point that tuition protests don’t work because those participating don’t vote, could have some weight if the claim that politicians ignore education was true, or that those protesting were part of a small subset of the young and educated who don’t vote.

Here the argument continues to fall apart. For starters, if you’re politically engaged enough to take part in a protest, you are also engaged enough to vote. As Gidengil and her research partners point out, “these young activists are more likely than other members of their generation to belong to a political party or to an interest group, and to vote.” (Emphasis in original). In other words, people who don’t vote aren’t likely to be engaged in other ways. To the extent that protesting works as a way to impact public policy, it seems reasonable to assume that that is because protesters are voters.

As for whether politicians ignore students, it is a little tricky to draw even speculative conclusions based on these statistics for the simple reason that I have been referring to participation rates for federal elections, and higher education policy continues to be a predominantly provincial responsibility.

But the fact that pretty much every province heavily regulates the price of tuition and/or provides some form of debt relief would suggest politicians are mindful of university students as voters. As for policies like tuition tax credits and tuition rebates, it is true that they may not be precisely what some education advocates, who generally want upfront grants or lower tuition, are calling for. Such policies do, however, remind voters who their benefactors are. A fat cheque at tax time does a better job of this than if tuition is low to begin with.

Finally, if the question of jurisdiction seems inconsequential, and you’re wondering why the Stephen Harper Conservatives may appear to ignore tuition protesters, ask yourself if the government has anything to gain, in terms of votes, by paying attention to these activists? How many diehard anti-tuition advocates are also potential Conservative supporters?

That’s what I thought.

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