OTTAWA — Canadians should be forced by law to vote as a way of battling youth disengagement from politics, a Queens’ University student plans to tell the Senate Liberal caucus Wednesday.
Kristen Olver and her friend, Lucia Guerrero, both of them fourth-year political studies students, will be making a trip to Ottawa to give Canada’s senators a reality check.
“From our own experience, [youth disengagement] is extremely severe, and we’re not really sure that everyone is very aware of that kind of thing,” Olver, 21, told The Huffington Post Canada.
“There will be times when we are talking with our friends, and maybe an ad will come up where they are forced to be engaged with politics. We’ll see maybe [Liberal Leader Justin] Trudeau or [Prime Minister Stephen] Harper and they’ll ask ‘Is Trudeau the leader of his party? Is that what Harper is?’ And these are very basic type questions about politics, but we’ve become aware that not a lot of people are aware of something as basic as that.
“A lot of people aren’t willing to ask because they don’t want to feel like they are dumb or ignorant or anything like that,” Olver said. “And these are smart people.”
Olver said she is concerned about her friends’ and colleagues’ lack of interest in politics because of what it means in the long term.
“If youth aren’t willing to ask those types of questions in safe, positive spaces, when they go out in the working world, I don’t think it’s going to get much better,” she said. “If they remain silent, and they remain non-voting and kind of apathetic and tuned out, we are going to continue to see the kind of disengagement that we are seeing, and if voter turnout continues to go in the way that we are seeing, it is really going to jeopardize the health of our democracy.”
Elections Canada notes that only 38.8 per cent of young people — those 18 to 24 years old — cast a ballot during the 2011 election.
Approximately 34 per cent of first-time voters cast a ballot in 2000 and 2004, compared with 58 per cent of first-time voters in the 1984 election, a study by political scientists André Blais and Peter Loewen found.
Canada's chief electoral officer, Marc Mayrand, told The Huffington Post Canada two years ago that young people do not understand their potential power.
"If young people understood their collective influence and started to vote at the same rate as the general population, then that would mean 700,000 more votes at the election. That is bound to have an influence," he said.
Olver told HuffPost she thinks young people could affect the results of elections because they tend to vote for parties on the left of the political spectrum, such as the NDP, the Greens and the Liberals.
“I think it could impact the result, especially if there was something like mandatory voting.”
Compulsory voting is one of her controversial solutions.
“We know that’s a contentious issue with some people. But we know that it is a direct solution to the problem,” she said. “Maybe by doing that we would also have more emphasis on educating youth in high school or elementary school on voting… in addition to having more people coming out to vote.”
Olver and Guerrero also plan to suggest more civics education in high school curriculums and to encourage more politicians to engage with young people in their community.
James Cowan, the leader of the Liberals in the Senate, told HuffPost he invited the Queen’s students to speak and to help organize the open caucus meeting on youth engagement in politics because, as a political organizer, he is puzzled by the general decline of interest in the political process.
“We hope to learn from this,” he said. “It’s a huge issue. Why aren’t people engaged? Why don’t they vote? Why are there fewer people involved with political parties or contribut[ing] money to political parties or volunteer[ing] in political parties than there were 10, 20, 30 years ago? How do you replace that? And what are the consequences for our democracy if this trend continues … and it escalates?”
Cowan said he doesn’t blame young people for not participating.
“I don’t think it’s their fault. I think it’s the fault of the political process. I think it’s the fault of the political parties. It’s the fault of candidates, and it’s the fault of those who get elected to Parliament,” he said.
Although Trudeau is actively seeking support from young voters, Cowan said Harper’s Conservatives have shown no interesting in pursuing or paying attention to younger Canadians.
“The Conservatives have been very successful by analyzing, segmenting the population. They know the pool of voters that is open to them, and they concentrate all their effort on that pool of voters and don’t seem to be making any effort… to reach out beyond that,” he said.
Recent Conservative mailings ask recipients whether they are a: stay-at-home parent, senior, veteran, parent of a child under 18 or a working Canadian. There is no”‘student” or “young adult” option.
Cowan suggested that the Senate, which is an unelected body, would be the best place to engage in a study on youth disengagement because “our skin isn’t in the game.”
Although the 52 Conservative senators in the upper chamber are members of the governing party, Cowan’s 30 Senate Liberals were turfed out of Trudeau’s caucus and have been barred from engaging in political activity on behalf of the Liberals.
“This is not a partisan thing that we are working on here,” the Senate Liberal leader said. “This is open to everybody and we just want to get a discussion going.”
The Senate Grits have also invited former chief electoral officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley, Leadnow organizer Katelynn Northam and Apathy Is Boring founder Ilona Dougherty to address their caucus Wednesday.
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