Millennials get a bad rap. This particular generation—“youth” born roughly between 1986 and 1997—have been labelled apathetic, lazy, and entitled. Sweeping generalizations rarely help when examining human behaviour, but bitter-tasting tar seems to accompany the word “millennial” as it rolls from the tongue. Yet, as the generation moves more deeply into adulthood, they’re dispelling some of these myths.
Samara Canada recently examined one of the misconceptions—that youth are apathetic and disengaged from politics. A non-partisan charity with a mandate to increase civic engagement, Samara released a report on September 9 that challenges the perception that youth aren’t politically engaged. “Message Not Delivered: The Myth of Apathetic Youth and the Importance of Contact in Political Participation” looks at record lows in voter turnout among youth—38.8 per cent in the 2011 federal election—in contrast with youth engagement in political activities. Participation in campaigns, volunteering, and petitions is actually 11 per cent higher among Canadians under 30 compared to those over 30. Millennials aren’t disengaged, but there’s a disconnect happening between that passion of participation and the trip to the ballot box.
First-year student at Simon Fraser University, Russell Copley is challenging that trend. “I am registered to vote, I am 18, and I plan on voting. I am a young person, so of course I have researched the political parties—it is my future after all.” Raised in a politically engaged household and school environment, his ideas are well-formed. He agrees that youth aren’t given enough credit. “I feel like when it comes to research and knowing about politics, it is the older generations who are apathetic…after all, they’ll all be dead soon, so what does it matter about long term environmental, economic, and social impact to them.”
Following the 2011 Federal General Election, Elections Canada conducted The National Youth Survey (NYS) in an attempt to understand youth participation in the electoral process. The survey included a national random sample of young adults between 18 and 34, as well as a non-random sample of often-marginalized sub-groups (youth classified as Aboriginal, ethnocultural, rural, disabled, and those not in school and unemployed). The survey reported that the most common reasons for not voting were personal circumstances such as travel or commitments to family, school, or work; as well as feeling unprepared, lacking knowledge of the candidates and issues.
The NYS also identified specific barriers to voting. In terms of motivation, the study found a lack of political knowledge and lack of interest in seeking it. Coupled with a general belief that all parties and politicians were the same, and didn’t speak to youth issues, made voting futile.
In contrast to Copley, this is more in line with the experience of recent high school graduate Noelle Tolley. “I don’t know that much about politics. My friend Eden and I are really interested, but we don’t know where to get information.” She is registered to vote though, and eager to learn enough to make an informed choice.
Access to information about the political process, including how and when to vote was another significant barrier. Seemingly simple issues like transportation, voter cards lost in the mail, and having the required identification were also barriers (the latter has the potential to create very serious problems in the coming election due to the new Fair Elections Act; see page five for more information on voter registration). Finally, those with post-secondary education were more likely to vote, while those living with low income were less likely. Among the sub-groups identified in the NYS, the above barriers were all a factor, but exponentially so.
In a quest to improve youth voter turnout, one of the most immediate ways to improve the numbers comes down to simple access:
- publicize where, when, and how to vote;
- find reliable ways to distribute voter information cards;
- ensure identification requirements are realistic; and
- making polling stations easily accessible to youth (i.e. university campuses).
Sacia Burton, canvassing coordinator for the Paul Manly campaign team says, “As a young Canadian, I find it incredibly frustrating to see Canadian democracy unravel through apathy and confusion about the electoral system. I want to help demystify politics for the under-30 crowd. Participating in the political process shouldn’t be difficult or intimidating.”
Removing the walls between youth and the ballot box is the first step. Engaging their interest is another matter. “Message Not Delivered” made it clear that one key tactic can demonstrably increase engagement with the youth vote, something political campaigns can start doing today: create contact between youth and political leaders. This contact—by candidates themselves or their (preferably younger) campaign staff—can be used to work through any barriers that keep youth (even interested youth) away from polling places.
Paul Manly, candidate for the Green Party, says, “We have been engaging youth by reaching out to youth, attending events that youth go to, such as dance performances, artist’s events, live music shows, and farmer’s markets; having public meetings at The Vault Café; and going to the campus to make ourselves available to students.”
The federal Liberal Party has also been actively reaching out to young voters. “We have been very successful attracting volunteers and support through a series of outreach meetings, personal contact, and social media,” Liberal candidate Tim Tessier says.
“We know that it is crucial that we engage young people as we approach this historic election,” says Sheila Malcolmson, NDP candidate for Nanaimo-Ladysmith. Attention to the environment, and changes to make the electoral system more fair are just some of the priorities she’s hearing from youth.
Despite some candidates’ efforts to connect, 45 per cent of youth report that they’ve had no contact with political leaders. During youth, Canadians tend to be more transient, so it’s possible that the message is right, but it just isn’t finding its recipient via conventional channels, like a home mailing address or calls to a land line. It’s possible that the message is there, but it isn’t meaningful to the younger audience because it uses the wrong kind of language and isn’t tailored to the interests of youth.
“We began several months ago working with the Nanaimo-Ladysmith Young Liberal Association,” Tessier says. “First, we had them identify their key concerns and how to best engage young voters. Our young voters were given autonomy on strategies and implementation. The biggest concern was how to engage interest, followed closely by educating them as to how important this election is to their future.”
“Our local team is thrilled with the support we are receiving from young people and students. They are volunteering and we are giving them leadership roles in my campaign. They bring energy and fresh perspectives, and every day they remind me what is at stake on October 19,” Malcolmson says, “And we are working hard to recruit and welcome more.”
While the three opposition parties are actively engaging youth and courting their votes, attempts to secure comments for this story from the Conservative Party candidate were unsuccessful.
Typical get-out-the-vote (GOTV) tactics can also be effective with youth. Face-to-face contact can boost turnout, and the nature of that contact itself may even be more meaningful than the party’s message or platform. Peer-to-peer contact (i.e. peer pressure) helps. Involving youth in campaigns helps foster those peer relationships. “We engage youth in the campaign, respect their abilities, and give them responsibilities and opportunities for work experience that will count toward future job applications,” Manly says. Technology is an important part of millennials’ lives, so text messaging and social media are important tools, also employed by the Green Party campaign. Regardless of the GOTV tactic used, they make the biggest impact close to election day.
Organizations like Rock the Vote are focused on creating a cultural shift in the way that youth view politics, creating a culture where conversation, engagement, and voting are second nature for all citizens, especially youth. Their tactics include partnering with artists, musicians, and other performers who are prominent in pop culture to help deliver the message that politics is not only important, but it can be cool and sexy too. Rock the Vote Canada hasn’t been active this election, but their website redirects to votesavvy.ca a similarly youth-inspired and led group that works to help youth understand the issues.
Political engagement doesn’t end on election day and then restart with the next provincial or municipal campaign. Strengthening political life outside of election campaigns is an important part of boosting civic engagement generally. When politics—not just on the hill, but issues and policies that govern everyday lives—comes to the lunch table or bus stop, it loses the feeling of being arms length, of being something that is only for “them.” When parents are politically engaged, their attitudes rub off on their children. Their interest and excitement is contagious. Political life belongs to every Canadian citizen; they just need to open their ears and eyes and dive in. “Working on the campaign team has led to countless political discussions: not just in the office, but at parties, in classes, and over coffee. It’s great to be able to normalize the practice of talking about politics with people my age,” Burton says.
Political parties have a part to play between elections as well by keeping regular contact with their members and listening to their issues and concerns. They can do the ground level fieldwork in places like colleges and universities, engage conversation, and ingrain the importance of civic duty at every opportunity. They also need to ensure that politics are discussed early and often, at the high school and even elementary level.
As the older generation is slowly replaced by youth, there are signs that by reaching out and removing barriers to voting, politicians can encourage a shift for the younger generation into rich political life. Given their numbers, millennials have the power to swing elections. And because they tend to be free of partisan attachments, their votes are far easier to win than the older generation’s. Youth have the power to make a significant difference in this election; they have the power to be a massive force for cultural change if they choose to accept it.
Back to that 38.8 per cent youth turnout number from 2011. That was up two per cent from 2008. Maybe we’re on an upward trend? Show up on Monday, October 19 and be a part of it.
For the full text of the Samara report and other useful resources, visit samaracanada.com. Elections Canada’s National Youth Survey is available at elections.ca.