Voter turnout hit a record low at 50% of eligible voters casting a ballot in the 2009 BC provincial election – down 8% from 2005. Not surprisingly, young people are responsible for many of those unchecked ballots, for instance 66% of registered 20-24 year olds did not vote in the 2009 election. With the next provincial election just nine months away, can we expect continued low participation, or are there reasons to believe that the younger generation may be becoming more active in the political process?
Perhaps the uptick in political activity in BC and across Canada offers a clue. From the 2011 federal election robocalls scandal, opposition to omnibus budget Bill C-38 and online surveillance Bill C-30, to the Quebec student protests and the considerable opposition to the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline in BC, thousands of young people have been exposed to political issues and have taken action. Voters turn out when they are informed and believe there is enough at stake, so it’s possible that this latest activity may be carried forward into the next election.
Another clue may be the recent Angus Reid Public Opinion survey showing the NDP in the lead with 45% of “decided voters and leaners” saying they would support the NDP party in the next provincial election. This may signal a higher voter turnout among young people because (1) voter turnout in BC’s history has risen and fallen in proportion to rising or falling support for the NDP and (2) the same Angus Reid survey cited the NDP as particularly popular among voters aged 18-to-34.
Social media is of course a major underlying factor in increased political awareness among the youth. According to Paul Howe, author of Citizens Adrift – The Democratic Disengagement of Young Canadians, the fundamental reason for low voter turnout among young people is diminished social integration over time and a relatively weak attachment to community – the basis of democracy. Social ties promote civic participation but these ties have frayed since the 1970s. However, social media is reinventing community, creating possibilities for connecting, collaborating and taking action in entirely new ways. As political parties become more astute at engaging with these communities and meeting young people in the online spaces they inhabit, political discourse may be re-established within these communities, online and offline.
All of this seems promising, however there is one critical factor when it comes to the youth vote that must not be overlooked – a political party’s ability to speak to the younger generation with authenticity. Whether working, volunteering, donating or voting, young people today want to authentically engage with the process. This means they want leaders they can trust, they want to participate in meaningful ways and to do work that aligns with their values, and they want to have a positive impact on society and be part of something bigger than themselves. Authenticity is an interesting word in the world of politics with distrust in politicians and beliefs that voting will not make a difference being common themes for many voters, especially younger voters. However, this particular characteristic of young people may also present one of the better opportunities in a long time for potential leaders, who really do have the best interests of the younger generation and society as a whole in mind, to truly empower this important demographic and help bring the youth vote back into Canadian democracy.