Those blaming apathy for a precipitous decline in youth voter turnout need to rethink their diagnosis, according to Samara Canada, a non-partisan think-tank focused on civic engagement and studying the health of Canada’s political system.
“If the number of non-voters increases, the legitimacy of Canada’s democratic process may soon be called into question,” warns the introduction to “Message not delivered: The myth of apathetic youth and the importance of contact in political participation.”
But while the recently released report affirms earlier research, including Samara’s own, that voter activity is lower among those 18-29, it also shows that this age group is more likely than its elder cohorts to engage in other forms of political activity. Such activities include attending a political meeting, volunteering for a candidate, giving a political speech in public, or organizing a political public event.
Voting, however, is a different matter.
Only 41 percent of those 18-29 vote, compared to 57 percent aged 30-55 and 67 percent aged 56 and up. It’s a trend that has been documented for years, and Samara warns it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy when political parties ignore the young because the young don’t vote.
Political parties have precious few resources, including money and volunteer hours, during an election, and maximize those resources by focusing on where votes can be had.
However, Samara’s research finds that young people directly contacted by political leaders are more likely to vote. Mailouts and commercials are not enough, but direct engagement is. Unfortunately, that isn’t happening and doesn’t seem likely to in the current campaign.
“Canada is now in a vicious circle where young people largely don’t vote, in part because they aren’t contacted by political leaders, and they’re not contacted because they don’t vote,” reads the report.
“However, at more than 5 million strong, people 18 to 29 make up a significant portion of the Canadian population and hold a major stake in the future of the country.”
To turn this trend around, parties need to reach out to young people, and Samara puts the responsibility on them to do so. That can include more effective messaging.
That too, is a challenge. Young people move more, with less stable addresses, making it more difficult to register to vote.
But while Samara largely calls on political parties to engage young voters, the group advises ordinary Canadians to talk about politics and encourage youth to vote. It noted that preaching the duties of citizenship or guilt trips won’t get young people out, but social pressure can.