Any bump in youth vote worth celebrating: No magic formula for attracting young voters

By KRYSTLE CHOW
Published on the CanWest News Service wire and in the Ottawa Citizen (pg. A6).
Dec. 15 2005


Sarah Green, left, Johanna Mazur and Olive Dempsey worked with Get Your Vote On in last year’s provincial election in British Columbia. Ms. Dempsey credits the group’s efforts for a bump in voter turnout among young people.
Photo by STEVE BOSCH
for the Vancouver Sun.

OTTAWA – Considering the low voter turnout among young Canadians, youth groups say any increase for this federal election — however small — should be deemed a victory.

As they gear up for the Jan. 23 vote, they said there is no magic formula for turning around the dismal turnout in the June 2004 vote — fewer than four in 10 eligible voters aged 18 to 21 cast a ballot.

Still, representatives for such organizations as Vancouver-based Get Your Vote On and Student Vote, a Toronto group, said they are optimistic their efforts to win over young voters will mean higher numbers than the 38 per cent recorded last year by Elections Canada.

Party youth wings and young MPs are also doing their bit, using new technology to reach out to tech-savvy young people, as well as tried-and-true methods like visiting schools and universities.

“Politics is no longer just an old person’s game,” said Richard Diamond, president of the Young Liberals of Canada.

Mr. Diamond says the Young Liberals are using the Internet and text messaging to get the word out.

Elections Canada is in the game, too. It created a new youth website earlier this year. Most recently, it launched a $400,000 hip-hop ad campaign, being aired on popular youth channels YTV and MuchMusic, that encourages young Canadians to vote.

The campaigns seem to be working, albeit slowly, youth groups said.

A representative of Get Your Vote On credited the group’s efforts — ranging from concerts to all-candidates debates — for a bump in the voter turnout among young people in last year’s provincial election in British Columbia.

The rate climbed to 35 per cent of eligible voters aged 18 to 24, up from 27 per cent in 2001.

“(The increase) is actually quite significant,” said Olive Dempsey, communications co-ordinator for Get Your Vote On. “Given the declining trend in young voter turnout, it would have been a success even if the numbers had stayed the same.”

Ms. Dempsey said the increases are the first step in a long process to raise the level of civic literacy and awareness within the disconnected younger generation.

“People don’t want to make an uninformed decision,” Ms. Dempsey said, adding that young people often say they don’t vote because they don’t understand politicians’ rhetoric. “It’s often a maze of information and a sea of sound bites.”

Taylor Gunn, chief election officer of Student Vote, said it’s important to build a habit of active citizenship from a young age.

Student Vote operates a parallel election program that sends ballot boxes, voting screens and other election equipment to participating elementary and high schools. The schools then set up a mock election process with students as voters and poll clerks.

“The students get a chance to learn about the process of democracy so they’ll have participated at least once before they turn 18,” Mr. Gunn said.

The results of the exercise have been positive, he said. In a followup survey, 90 per cent of participants said they would vote in a future election. Before the course, only 70 per cent said they planned to vote.

Mr. Gunn said, however, it is difficult to say how effective the program is in the long run because it’s impossible to track the students’ voting practices.

The low turnout for young voters has prompted parties to emphasize the youth of their candidates. Conservative Pierre Poilievre, 26, is one of them.

“We’re showcasing the most youthful parliamentary caucus in history,” said Mr. Poilievre, the incumbent MP for Nepean-Carleton.

“We want to show how we’re not just on the sidelines as envelope-stuffers, but we’re in leadership positions.”

Mr. Poilievre said he hopes youth voters will identify with the growing number of young MPs.

The get-out-the-youth-vote drive will culminate with a national day of action on Jan. 16, which will be devoted to appealing to voters under 30.

Dubbed Go Vote Campaign to Get the Youth Vote Out, the event is being sponsored by 13 non-partisan organizations, known as the National Youth Coalition.

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