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Choosing silence

It’s the kind of problem people only discuss after elections, when it’s too late—why aren’t young people voting?

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Photo: iStock

Photo: iStock

I meet Crystal and Nick as they’re walking out of the Agricola Street liquor store, armed with supplies for their Friday evening. They’re wearing matching red plaid coats. Light acne freckles Nick’s face and Crystal wears heavy eyeliner and a blue bindi between her filled-in eyebrows. They’re both 21.

I’m 26 and posted outside the NSLC with my recorder on a hunch that booze on the weekend may be more attractive to my age group than polling stations at election time.

“No, I don’t vote,” Nick answers. Crystal says she doesn’t either.

“If we vote then we’re just feeding it to the government, right?” Nick says, taking the lead. “So if we buy things from Wal-Mart, or if we buy things from Sobey’s, then we’re feeding it to those corporations, so we’re helping Wal-Mart prosper. So if we vote we’re helping the government prosper. And I don’t want this government to prosper, so if I don’t vote, I’m not helping it at all.”

He continues: “If there was someone that I wanted to vote for, then I might, but nobody really interests me. The whole thing doesn’t interest me at all. I want a whole new government. So I’m not going to help it at all. I’m going to wait until a new system comes up.”

“…If nobody votes, then something has to happen.”

Crystal isn’t interested in the political process either. “I believe that to have a better lifestyle we all should help each other out, trade for trade instead of always depending on bigger companies with money and everything,” she says.

Crystal and Nick are among the 80 per cent of people in their age group (18 to 24 year-olds) who didn’t vote in last year’s provincial election. About 70 per cent of voters aged 25 to 34 also declined to vote. Compare that to their parents and grandparents: a robust 70 per cent of those 55 and older cast a ballot in the 2013 election.

If you’re a politically-involved young person, chances are you’ve heard this trend referenced almost as frequently as you’ve seen cat photos online: Disengagement from the electoral process by young non-voters is dragging down voter turnout rates—not only in Nova Scotia and Canada, but also in other developed Western nations.

In Canada’s 2008 federal election, we sunk to a new historic low of 58.8 per cent of eligible voters casting ballots. In 2011 there was a slight increase to 61.1 per cent—still quite a difference from Canada’s all time high of 79.4 per cent voter turnout in 1958.

In Nova Scotia’s 2013 election, voter turnout was 59 per cent (compared to 58 per cent in 2009). Municipally, turnout has hovered around 37 per cent since 2000, other than a slight uptick in 2004 that analysts attribute to the Sunday shopping referendum.

So, are Crystal and Nick emblematic of a generation in crisis? Lower those Millennial pitchforks for a moment. Younger voters have always shown a lower propensity to vote than those 35 and older, and people born after 1980 are continuing a trend that began two generations earlier (albeit non-voting lite).

And contrary to the ‘voter apathy’ myth, there’s no simple reason for this trend. When you ask ‘80s and ‘90s children why they don’t vote, they give a plethora of reasons for sitting out. Last year, Halifax-based public interest group Springtide Collective interviewed almost 700 people aged 18 to 30 about their political behaviour and beliefs. When asked if they would vote were an election held on the survey date, 79 per cent said yes.

Those who responded negatively or indecisively were asked what factor was most likely to change their mind. Twenty-five per cent said they would vote if politicians focused more on issues they cared about. Some 23 per cent of non-voters said they would vote if they knew when and where to do so. Sixteen per cent said they would if it were clear their vote mattered.

Though nearly a quarter of self-identified non-voters cited access as an issue, Springtide founder and president Mark Coffin says it’s not a major factor. “The last election in Nova Scotia was by far the most accessible election that has ever happened,” he says.

Elections Nova Scotia put voting booths on every campus and implemented continuous polling, and unlike previous elections, this one happened during the academic year.

“And turnout among the young 18 to 24 age cohort went down by about four per cent,” he says of the fall provincial election.

“The one thing that election taught us as a one-time experience is that access and the way elections are administered isn’t the problem. That was an argument that I used to make and now it’s pretty clear it’s not the issue.”

That, or it’s one issue on a grocery list of problems. Early in the last decade, Elections Canada interviewed 960 non-voters from the 2000 federal election. Non-voters of all ages cited a lack of interest, negative views of politics and “personal/administrative” factors, but young non-voters were more likely to report lack of interest or personal/administrative factors as reasons for not voting.

Access did factor in for certain groups: chronic non-voters included disabled people, aboriginal young people, unemployed young people and young rural women in particular.

The survey, which also polled those who cast ballots, found people were less likely to vote if they perceived they had no influence over government actions, did not feel voting was an essential civic act, or did not think the election was competitive enough for their vote to matter.

Young people told Elections Canada they would be more likely to vote if federal politics involved issues they found relevant, and if they received better political education. (Note: if you’re not sure how Canadian elections work, click here!)

As a political-science professor at Dalhousie with a son in his mid-20s, Louise Carbert knows a thing or two about kids these days and voting. She suspects the trend toward low voter turnout is caused by a cocktail of factors, including socio-economic status, life cycle trends and the increasing transience of young people.

Political participation tends to kick in around the $40,000 per year mark, she points out. Completing high school and university boosts your odds of voting, too. University and college students aged 18 to 24 are nine per cent more likely to vote than non-students in the same age group.

The life cycle effect also plays a role. “When we move through life, there’s a predictable pattern of growing up and getting old that affects political participation as well,” Carbert says.

However, a study commissioned by Elections Canada found the life cycle effect is less pronounced in people born in the 1980s than earlier generations. And combined with the idea of generational replacement—in which younger generations with a lower propensity to vote replace older generations that turn out in droves—the low turnout trend is expected to drop further.

But there’s one major trend that sticks out to the parent and professor: “A lot of the lower voter turnout is connected to the mobility of youth—moving around the country to study [and] moving around the country to work,” she explains. “They’re travelling. That’s wonderful, but it doesn’t give them a fixed attachment to any particular community.”

Transience combined with what Carbert dubs “delayed maturation”—getting married, buying a house and having kids later—could mean young people are taking longer to connect with any one community, and connection to a community is a major determinant of whether an eligible voter will participate in politics.

Also associated with voter turnout? Attending religious services. Younger generations are less interested in organized religion than our parents, and to state the obvious, religious services are strongly associated with community connection.

Millenials have lower job prospects and higher debt loads, which affects our socio-economic status—a key determinant of voting behavior. We’re more transient, less religious, and less financially able to get married, own homes or start families, which could mean we feel less community connection.

Our parents also had a lower propensity to vote than our grandparents. That disengagement was likely passed down through fewer political discussions around the dinner table.

Don’t lose hope, though.

Nick could see himself voting in “a more communal system—people helping each other out, not just one small group in power, but if everybody’s in power.”

He perceives politicians as acting “so far above us” and “being able to buy their way out of anything” but “really we’re all just people.” If politicians were more transparent and authentic, he would be more likely to vote for them.

Improved political education won’t help, he says.

“Well, how it works right now would just scare more people off from voting, really, in my opinion at least,” he says. “But then they could start a revolution quicker, which would be good.”

Risk of revolution aside, we know citizens must both understand the electoral system and be capable of making informed decisions to be effective voters. But what about the voting system itself?

An election is like a vending machine that gives you options but you have no control over how those options got there, Coffin says.

“There’s a deeper argument that there really isn’t a good reason to engage with the system because it isn’t incredibly responsive to people when they do get engaged,” he says.

The winner-take-all model of provincial and federal elections is likely part of the problem, he believes.

“In Nova Scotia in the last election, 51 per cent of people voted for losing candidates,” he says. “Fifty-five per cent of people voted for a party that isn’t a part of the government.”

Take the recent Ontario election, too.

The Liberals gained 38.7 per cent of the popular vote, compared to 31.2 for the PCs, and 23.7 for the NDP—but swung a majority government with 59 seats to the Conservatives’ 27 and the NDP’s 21.

A system with proportional representation could be one solution, if we’re willing to go there.In industrialized countries with proportional representation, voter turnout tends to be higher. It could be that electors see the effect of their votes more easily. They may also prefer the model’s propensity to produce consensus rather than majority governments.

Improved civic literacy is another solution, Coffin says—and one Springtide is working on. According to the survey mentioned earlier, less than a third of young Nova Scotians could recognize Darrell Dexter when he was premier.

And if you’re a candidate or party member, young people told Springtide they want to hear you speaking about issues that matter to them. The Nova Scotia Conservatives experimented a little with this last election, uploading a YouTube video of two young guys singing a parody of Wagon Wheel, and publishing an ad bemoaning the commute from Nova Scotia to Alberta.

If parties and candidates are truly interested in corralling the young vote, this is my challenge to you: reach out to young people more than you have in the past, and do it in an authentic way—not only to persuade them to vote for you, but also so they vote at all (trust me, we can sniff the difference four years away). Try bringing up jobs and the economy, social welfare and poverty alleviation and the environment, for starters—those three categories were the most important to young people, according to Springtide’s survey.

Finally to my cohorts: Voting is a personal decision—one you are free to make on your own—and there are valid reasons to sit out. However, you should know the official reasons for not voting stated in surveys are many and muddled, making it nearly impossible for the electoral system or its candidates to know why you as an individual did not cast your ballot. If you believe sitting out sends a particular message, you’re wrong.

It’s far from perfect, but currently the one way to directly affect elections in Canada is to vote. As far as our existing system is concerned, not voting is choosing silence.

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  • Ian

    I wish more people who said “I don’t see any point in voting”, would reject their ballots instead (write “None of the above on it, or draw a picture). Those votes DO get tallied and reported on. That to me, shows true voter apathy, not just not voting at all, which just gets dumped into a percentage of overall voters.

  • Hilary Beaumont

    Hey Ian, good idea. I should have mentioned this in the story: spoiled ballots are tallied and reported, but it’s not possible to know which are intentionally or unintentionally spoiled since they are not counted separately. Even if we knew the number of intentionally spoiled ballots, we wouldn’t know why they were spoiled, which brings us full circle. Thanks for your comment!

  • Ian

    There’s a difference between “spoiled” ballots and “rejected ballots”. Spoiled are ones that are torn or damaged in some way that they are discarded before even being used.

    Rejected ballots are where someone (usually) purposely wrote something other than an “X”. These are counted as part of the provincial totals and show up in the tally sheets.

  • metroguide

    Approved

  • Hilary Beaumont

    Fair enough! I meant to say rejected ballots. Let’s assume all or most of these are intentionally marked as a form of protest. I don’t see how that is better than sitting out as a non-voter. In both cases, we don’t know why someone chose to sit out or chose to mark the ballot with something other than an X. The most we can know is that the number of rejected ballots went up, down or stayed the same compared to a previous election. So it’s my view that it doesn’t send much of a message other than to know how many people felt motivated to mark something other than an X.

  • Ian

    “..it doesn’t send much of a message other than to know how many people felt motivated to mark something other than an X.”

    But, it shows that they are interested in the electoral process and took the time to go out to the voting station, just that they are not happy with the available candidates and/or system. For the record, this is what I did, rejected my ballot in the provincial election.

    It’s the best we can do in a first past the post system. If 10% of the population rejected their ballots, I’d be willing to bet that the 2nd place party will change their attitude the next time around, to try to better identify with those who came out to the voting booth, but couldn’t select a particular candidate.

    Non-voters doesn’t tell us anything at all. They could be working, disabled, out of the province, etc, etc..

  • Hilary Beaumont

    All good points, Ian. Maybe as a follow-up story I could go undercover as a returning officer at a polling station and report what people write on their ballots? (And then get arrested or fined, but at least we would know more!)

  • Nando

    Following Ian’s idea. Say that there is a campaign for the “reject ballot”, which highlights the willingness for voting, but the dissatisfaction with the candidates or the political process. It only takes to compare the “new” numbers of rejected ballots vs the historical data on rejected ballots to show the success or not of the campaign.

  • Ian

    There was a near 100% increase in rejected ballots from the 2009 election to the 2013 one:

    Quote:
    “Though some people were more engaged than in 2009, this year also marked a sharp spike in the number of rejected ballots, many of which were likely intentionally spoiled.

    In 2009, there were 1,520 rejected ballots.

    This year there were 2,925, Elections Nova Scotia reported.”

    This is still below the historical numbers, but it seems to be a growing trend again:

    http://electionsnovascotia.ca/sites/default/files/Comparative%20Stats%202009.pdf

    http://thechronicleherald.ca/novascotia/1159586-more-nova-scotians-voted-just-barely

  • Mike Murphy

    Maybe young people would vote more if we had an actual democracy to participate in, and not this facade of one x every five years as your totality of direct democratic actions.

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