Higher youth turnout could change tone, content and outcome of political debate

A man casts his vote for the 2011 federal election in Toronto in this May 2, 2021 photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

A man casts his vote for the 2011 federal election in Toronto in this May 2, 2021 photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press

OTTAWA - “My vote won’t make any difference.”

It’s a common refrain among those who don’t bother to cast ballots in Canadian elections.

But a new analysis of young non-voters in the last federal election suggests they should think again.

If young people had turned out to vote in the same numbers as the population overall in 2011, pollster Nik Nanos says his research suggests they would have changed not just the outcome of the election but the tone and content of the political debate.

Just over 60 per cent of eligible voters actually cast ballots in 2011. Among those under 30, fewer than 40 per cent bothered to vote.

Working with Kevin Page, the former parliamentary budget officer, on a project aimed at engaging youth in the political process, Nanos has mined data from his daily polling during the 2011 campaign as well as research done for the Institute for Research on Public Policy to answer the question: What if 60 per cent of young people had voted?

His answer: Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives likely wouldn’t have won a majority.

More importantly, he says the political debate would have been more hopeful and would have revolved around a broader range of issues if young people had been more engaged in the process.

“What we find is that their concerns are much more diverse than older Canadians who are fixated on jobs and health care,” Nanos said in an interview. “So if you’re a younger Canadian, you’re twice as likely to say that the environment is a top national issue of concern. You’re twice as likely to say that education is a top national issue of concern.”

His analysis also suggests older Canadians “are very cynical, they have less confidence in finding solutions” whereas younger people “are actually much more hopeful, have a higher level of confidence in finding solutions.”

From that Nanos concludes: “Just the mere act of engaging them could reshape the tone of the dialogue.”

Much of the efforts to improve turnout among young voters have focused on making it easier for them to vote, with polling stations on university campuses and more advance polls, among other initiatives.

But while the mechanics of voting are important, Nanos said his research suggests political leaders could do more to engage young people simply by talking about the issues that concern youth and adopting a more hopeful, can-do manner.

“If we had the perfect voting system that was completely accessible, why do we think that more Canadians would vote if the content sucked?”

He likens the current political dialogue to a buffet that serves only chicken and mashed potatoes — a diet that appeals to older Canadians who are most likely to vote. A buffet that offered a more diverse menu would attract more diverse voters, Nanos argues.

Therein lies the Catch 22, however. Politicians necessarily target their messages at those who do vote and as long as the majority of young people don’t vote, their tastes are not going to be catered to.

“I think maybe we need to get our political leaders to change the dial on the policy agenda,” says Page, who is now research chair at the University of Ottawa’s school of political studies.

At the same time, he adds: “I think in the case of students, when they see their own (turnout) numbers … and they don’t see the policy content on the political leaders’ agenda, they’re culpable.”

Page is attempting to change behaviour on both sides of the equation, inviting political leaders to come and meet with students to discuss ways to improve political engagement.

He has organized an event Tuesday at UOttawa, featuring NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, Green Leader Elizabeth May and Conservative MP Michael Chong, author of a private member’s bill aimed at empowering backbenchers.

Some of his students, meanwhile, have launched an online “I vote/je vote” campaign, aimed at mobilizing young voters through peer pressure.

© The Canadian Press, 2014