Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
The young and the voteless
The Democracy Project
Andrea Martinez thinks it's kind of goofy.
Why would the NDP government stoop so low as to put an ad on TV that twists things?
Why would they say Progressive Conservative Leader Hugh McFadyen and his bunch like to fire nurses or pollute our rivers and lakes?
"It's a cheap shot," the Grade 12 Windsor Park Collegiate student said, shaking her head in disgust. "I don't think it's fair."
The 'Know Hugh' attack ad produced by the NDP, and McFadyen's TV ads released in response before Christmas, is Martinez's first real taste of the 2011 provincial election campaign.
It will also be the first provincial election in which she and several of her classmates will be eligible to vote on Oct. 4.
The Winnipeg Free Press will follow Martinez, Aidan Ramsay, Jennifer Bales, Jordan Mackay and Matthew Landry for the next year to get their thoughts on the campaign and the hurly-burly world of provincial politics.
They and other students represent the youth vote, a demographic that each year becomes less politically aware and certainly less politically active than a generation ago.
Youth engagement in voting has been declining steadily since the 1960s, according to Elections Canada. In the 1960s, about 70 per cent of young people would vote in the first election in which they were eligible to participate; by 2004, it was only slightly more than 30 per cent.
In 2008, Canadian citizens between 18 and 20.5 years old were eligible to vote in their first federal election. Only 35.6 per cent of them did. In Manitoba, that number was 20.4 per cent, the lowest first-time voter rate among all provinces. The scary part is that if young people don't vote in the first couple of elections in which they're eligible, they're even less likely to vote as adults. The trend is not unique to Canada.
The reasons why have been well discussed: They don't care; they're lazy, they're not taught citizenship in school, they feel their vote is worthless; they don't feel politics and politicians at any level matter to them; politicians are all the same anyway, so why vote?
Martinez and her friends have heard these reasons and more.
And they don't agree.
Take those attack ads for instance. Matthew Landry paid close enough attention. He watched both McFadyen's ads the day they were released Dec. 13. When Jennifer Bales saw the NDP's Know Hugh ad, she asked her parents what it was about and what they thought about its message.
Landry and Bales, like Martinez, thought it was unfair to McFadyen, especially when it accuses him of past government actions or things that haven't even happened.
They say politicians, especially those in government, should take the high road in TV ads to promote their ideas, rather than stab their "enemies" in the back.
"There are better ways to get to get their message across," Landry says.
Jordan Mackay and Aidan Ramsay don't necessarily agree. They see things more as they are than what they should be.
"It shows their true colours," Mackay says.
"It makes it more interesting," Ramsay adds.
Maybe so, but do these campaign-style ads make young people any more engaged? Do these ads, and even talking about them, make them eager to vote?
No, says Ilona Dougherty, co-founder and executive director of Apathy Is Boring, a web- and art-based lobby group created seven years ago to induce more people under 30 to vote in municipal, provincial and federal elections in Canada.
Dougherty, 30, says it could be just the opposite: As more political parties take to the TV airwaves and web -- Facebook and Twitter immediately come to mind -- to campaign, it means fewer politicians go knocking door-to-door.
That's a big mistake, she says.
"We've really changed how we run election campaigns and how politicians interact with Canadians," she said. "We've gone from the ground war to the air war. We've gone from a lot of door-knocking, a lot of getting to meet your candidate, to big, splashy media ads."
"The interesting thing is that if you're going to vote, a media ad might swing you between one party and another, but what it won't do is get you to vote if you're not going to vote at all."
What makes a big difference in getting young people to vote is talking to them, be it a parent, politician, priest or even plumber.
"What you need is somebody in-person, and someone who's not your friend, to come up to you and say, 'Hey, there's an election coming up. Here's how you vote. You should check it out.' That is the most effective way to get young people and anybody out to the polls.
"It's really counter-intuitive to, 'Oh, if we just get on Facebook, young people will vote and everything will be great.' That's not actually the solution. It's not what the research is showing. We need to stop doing that, basically."
Schools play a role, teaching civic engagement to students through school elections and debates.
Elections Manitoba also offers the Your Power To Choose program (available on its website) to help teachers tell their students about the voting process.
Our Windsor Park Collegiate quintet already know a bit more than many other Canadian students -- thanks to their teacher, Sandi Wagner -- about the voting process.
They already know it's about citizenship, regardless of what the TV ads say.
The Democracy Project
"The growth of non-voting among young adults may also reflect another sociological phenomenon; what has been called the "adult teenager." Young adults are taking longer to adopt the responsibilities that used to be associated with adulthood (e.g., a career, marriage, children, mortgage, etc.). They are not taking on these responsibilities until they are in their 30s. It is possible that, like these other adult responsibilities, the responsibility of voting is being delayed until later in life." -- Voter Turnout In The 2007 Provincial General Election: A Survey Of Voters And Non-Voters/Elections Manitoba
A study commissioned by Elections Canada on the rate of participation at the 2000 general election showed that younger Canadians were voting at significantly lower rates than older electors. For the 2004 general election, Elections Canada conducted a study that cross-referenced actual votes with data from the National Register of Electors to find out how many people were voting in each age group. The results showed that 37 per cent of electors aged 18 to 24 voted. For the 2006 general election, a similar study showed that approximately 44 per cent of electors in the 18 to 24 age group voted.
Turnout is low in Canada not because experienced voters are dropping out of the system, but because potential new voters are not opting into it.
Youth apathy in regard to voting is a problem not only in Canada, but also in the United States as well as the United Kingdom.
Many studies suggest that the current generation which is choosing to opt out of the vote will continue to do so in the future -- and that this behavior may not reverse itself when people get older.
While it may be true that youth are less cynical about politics than older citizens, research shows that they feel a profound sense of disconnect from political institutions. They cannot connect with politics, so they choose to ignore it instead.
Despite these numbers, a large number of youth are engaged in civil society in a variety of ways, including volunteering in community organizations or non-governmental organizations.
Elections Canada's research shows that young people who are active in volunteering in community organizations are, to a considerable degree, the same ones who turn out to vote. In other words, civic engagement and voting tend to go hand in hand.
Apathy is Boring
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 15, 2011 H4
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