Free Pizza!, by Rob Leforte
You’re probably familiar with this enticing phrase. It appears in bolded font on campus bulletin boards across the country. The message beckons undergraduates to leave dorm rooms, apartments, and libraries to engage in meaningful action. Any current or former student organizer is familiar with this tactic. When you need to fill a room for a guest lecture, film screening, or club meeting on a limited budget you invest in the tastiest common denominator to bring a crowd. Most students face competing pressures to keep up their grades, balance extracurriculars, and juggle part-time work to gain experience or just to make ends meet. Between the ages of 18 and 24 most youth are in a state of transience, geographic or otherwise, that makes it harder to engage them in anything.
Youth clearly face more barriers to voting than any other segment of the population, but these are insurmountable for very few people. I’ve been able to vote in every election since I turned 18, despite changing addresses between each election and using different identification regularly, while juggling other commitments. Voting is often difficult, which is problematic, but rarely is it impossible. The real issue for most young people is motivation and the solutions go beyond policy changes and targeted campaigns. Youth electoral engagement has a messenger problem.
It has been said that the single most important determinant of voting is age. Voter turnout has declined from 75.3% in 1988 to 58.5% in 2011. This decline is widely attributed to a drop in turnout among youth. Paradoxically, over the same period, attainment of tertiary education, which research suggests provides the “skills, knowledge and mindset that are associated with greater engagement generally” increased, especially among the youngest cohorts. Even as more sophisticated targeting techniques are developed and more effort is made to solve this problem the issue persists and shows no sign of abating. Though, to my knowledge, no government has yet committed to giving Elections Canada a pepperoni and cheese budget line.
Student groups, think tanks, political parties, and groups like Apathy Is Boring do noble work to bring more youth out to the polls. Their efforts to inform, empower, and compel youth are valuable and make a difference in many cases but the evidence shows that, despite this, the trend has continued downward. The 2011 paper Youth Electoral Engagement in Canada, relying on data from the Canadian Election Study highlights that the trend is long-term and that it is a “complex pattern with a combination of causes.” More recently, Samara Canada has conducted research that shows Canadian youth are much more likely to engage in politics through more involved activities than simply casting a ballot. In my experience, most reports and studies of electoral engagement have a narrow scope despite asking a broad range of questions. To me, the most important finding has been that not only are there generational effects for voting, where younger generations tend to vote less, but also life cycle effects, where voter turnout shifts within a cohort as they grow older.
Statistics Canada hasn’t considered me a youth for more than two years, but I still identify as a young person, and I think many older millennials feel the same way. In 2015, more youth are staying in school and delaying their entry into the workforce than at during previous elections. Higher levels of debt and the rise of precarious work mean that more young Canadians are delaying marriage, starting families, and making major purchases like buying a home. As a result, fewer Canadians are fully transitioned into adulthood, as it is socially constructed, when they are in the 18-24 years old. Turning 18 entitles Canadians to cast a ballot, but reaching the age of majority doesn’t mean they feel socially entitled, to engage in a distinctly adult activity.
Compounding the issue, formal party politics has become increasingly sterilized. Leaders are central to the identity and brand of their party. The transition from a political culture based on a 24-hour cable news cycle to one fuelled, minute-by-minute, with blog posts and social media discussions means that risk-averse parties and leaders have to practice strict message discipline. This top down approach limits the ability of anyone except those in the highest positions to influence party policy or processes. According to Samara Canada’s research, unsurprisingly, 69% of Canadians believe parties only want their votes, and not their opinions. This is a significant issue because good communicators have to be just as good at listening as they are at delivering messages.
Youth are routinely discouraged when they try to get involved in parties or criticized when they state their positions. When youth issues come to the fore in our public discourse the message sent to young people is that they are naïve, they don’t understand the broader context, that their concerns aren’t as significant as other problems, or even worse, that they’re just not ready to take part in our politics. For youth, the one thing worse than being ignored is being patronized. Participation is built on trust, which is the product of good relationships. At present, when parties contact young people during campaigns it has the same warmth as a dinner-hour cold call from a telemarketer.
The best way to fix the message is to fix the messengers. As I see it, we can cross our fingers and wait for a youth-whisperer to start pulling young Canadians in droves to polling stations, or we can start engaging youth politically between elections, listen to them, and respect their opinions. It may take more discussions and meetings, but at least there’ll be pizza.
Rob LeForte works as the Manager of Government Affairs at Impact Public Affairs in Ottawa. He recently completed the Clayton H. Riddell Graduate Program in Political Management at Carleton University and is a former youth.