10/07/2011 10:28 EDT | Updated 12/07/2011 05:12 EST

Stop Blaming Young Voters


It's been a busy year for democracy in Canada. Along with the federal election in May, eight provinces and territories will hold regional or local elections before 2011 is over. And after all the ballots have been counted, we can expect to see the usual articles bemoaning the low level of participation in Canadian elections.

Some of these articles will correctly identify low levels of youth participation as the primary driver of declining turnout. Unfortunately, Canada's pundits and political commentators also tend to perpetuate several misconceptions about our nation's youth--so I am going to debunk them ahead of time.

Misconception #1: Youth are cynical

Perhaps the most common misconception is that young Canadians lack faith in democracy. Anyone who believes this simply hasn't looked at the evidence. Youth have just as much (or little) faith in our democratic process and institutions as their parents' and grandparents' generations, and it doesn't explain the difference in voter turnout.

Similarly, you'll sometimes hear that youth have turned to alternative forms of political participation -- such as public demonstrations or online activism -- in lieu of voting. It's true that young Canadians are more likely to participate in non-traditional ways. However, the youth who take part in these activities are also more likely to vote. What we're seeing is young activists engaging through both traditional and alternative means, while their unengaged peers sit on the sidelines.

Misconception #2: Youth are students

Treating "youth" and "students" as synonymous was one of the limitations of the vote mobs we saw during the federal election this spring. Rick Mercer's original video message, well intentioned as it was, only addressed young Canadians in colleges and universities. The vote mobs that sprang up in response to Mercer reflected this, having been organized exclusively by students.

This is a common sin of omission. Journalists regularly conflate youth and students when talking about young voters. The numbers tell another story. Census data shows that 58 per cent of Canadians aged 18-24 -- the prime demographic for post-secondary enrolment -- are either full- or part-time students. The other 42 per cent are not. They won't be found on a campus or reached through a student union.

The problem with focusing exclusively on students is that ignores the group in the greatest need of mobilization. Market researchers call them "young independents" -- the young people who have left home, but have not yet settled down or started a family. Because they lack both stable community ties and the direct influence of a parent -- two key pathways to civic engagement -- these non-students are less likely to get involved on their own.

Misconception #3: Youth won't vote

As with many social problems, some people express a defeatist attitude about youth voter apathy. There are skeptics who say that youth turnout will stay low regardless of the measures taken to address it. Of course, as with most defeatist attitudes to social problems, this is an uninformed cop-out.

Young voters can be mobilized. That's a fact. It has been proven over and over again with the highest degree of rigour possible in the social sciences. Simply asking young people to vote consistently increases turnout by about 10 per cent.

The problem is that we're not even trying that. You've probably heard the rote statistic about how only 37 per cent of Canadians aged 18-24 cast a ballot in the 2008 federal election, compared with 68 per cent of those over 65. But here's something you may not have heard: during that same election, the majority of youth were not contacted in any way by a candidate or political party. What about the 65-plus crowd? Well, 69 per cent of them were contacted directly, by my calculations, using the Canadian Opinion Research Archive. When young Canadians aren't being consistently asked to participate, it's hardly surprising that they don't turn out for elections.

Apathy is Boring has been working to address this problem since 2004. During every election, we provide resources for youth and mobilize them to get out and vote. However, we're just one organization -- a real solution requires action from the key players in our democracy. It requires political parties that are willing to court a new constituency. It requires candidates whose commitment to youth goes beyond a few throwaway lines in their platform. And most of all, it requires that all of us abandon our misconceptions about youth.

Ilona Dougherty is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Apathy is Boring, a national, non-partisan, non-profit organization that uses art and technology to educate youth about democracy.