Why electoral politics elicits yawns from our youth

Post by Gabe Garfinkel in


Monty Python's "Constitutional Peasants" – What are your expectations of the political process?

CityCaucus.com is pleased to present a guest editorial from 24-year old Gabe Garfinkel, a political organizer who has worked in Toronto and Vancouver

As a politically active young person and a volunteer on several federal and provincial elections, I often get asked by other politicos and volunteers why I am so involved. The reason for this is simple: I believe that Canada’s democratic system rewards those who participate, and that the issues I care about will be better heard and represented by doing so. Indeed, I have lots of friends, peers and neighbours who have "better things to do with their time" than voting, so I stick out somewhat by being politically active.

I recently encountered some articles weighing into the debate about young people and politics. All of the pieces have merit, and each writer adds to the debate around the "democratic deficit" among youth today, but I disagree with some of their points which I'll explain further on.

The editorial by the Globe and Mail's Lawrence Martin is what kicked off the discussion. Titled If there's an inspiration deficit in our politics, blame it on the young, Martin uses the expression "Boring Old Guys" (BOGs) to describe the guys running the country. While I think 'BOGs' deserve some of the blame, young people have to share some of the responsibility for not getting involved. And in my opinion he fails to properly substantiate and connect the paragraph criticizing (my) under-25 generation to the rest of the article.

The young reject the political status quo, as they should, but they are too lazy to do anything about it. Most of the under-25s don't even bother to vote. Instead of fighting for change, they wallow in their vanities and entitlements. Not much turns them on except the Idol shows, movies with smut humour and the latest hand-held instruments. Their disillusionment with the political class is understood. Their complacency isn't. It will soon be their country. You'd think they'd want to take the reins.

I think Martin's editorial is really intended to spark debate (which it has), and it argues the need for both future and current politicians to work harder reaching out to youth. Lawrence's recipe is to rely on the charisma of political leaders to inspire, connect and (most importantly) engage young, new and apathetic voters.

Challenging Lawrence is Alison Loat, also published in the Globe. Loat's article titled Let's not blame youth for general voter apathy offers a more well-rounded critique of youth political apathy. Her first paragraph reciting the historic and systemic nature of growing youth political apathy was dead on. Low voter interest is not a new, she says. Politicians and their advisers trying to find the magic formula to reach out to young voters is also not new. And blaming youth for not participating is also an argument we've heard before. Loat gets this. But I think Loat's prescriptions for young voter malaise are vague and do not provide practical, short and medium term solutions.

Also critical of Lawrence Martin (and supportive of Loat) is local blogger David Eaves, who has also been politically involved in recent years. Eaves' article titled Eat the Young! provides some interesting views on why youth can't be blamed for looming current crisis in voter turnout. However, Eaves refuses to put on any onus on himself or his generation for the lack of interest in the political system.

Eaves names a few smart and ambitious Gen Y and X friends, arguing that Martin doesn't see the real substance of his generation. It is easy to see his point, but he overlooks that the same Baby Boomer generation he criticizes has also accomplished a lot, in addition to voting. Nevertheless the best paragraph of the three articles must go to Eaves, when he calls out Martin and the Baby Boomer hegemony in the political process and mainstream political discourse by listing the ages of Globe and Mail journalists.

So is youth political participation as really as bleak as the writers suggest, or is progress being made?

I am optimistic because people are debating these issues. I am hopeful because there are youth wings in political parties. I am encouraged by the prevalence of politicians using social media to connect with their voters and constituents, and by the digital activism that grassroots supporters now pride themselves on. However, changing one's Facebook status is neither voting in an election nor getting one's hands dirty on the campaign trail. But it's a start...

After a quick brainstorm of my own, here are a few suggestions that may help engage younger voters.

  1. Political parties need leaders (yes, with charisma) who are able to relate to youth and make sense of complex problems.
  2. Political communication and messaging must be short, simple and empowering. "Yes, we can" will always get more people to the voting booths than "Gordon Campbell hates you."
  3. Be relevant. Relevant issues can inspire people from all corners of this country to get politically involved. Sometimes, people just need to find the right issue to become active. But without the knowledge that these individuals can, in fact, make an impact on issues they care about, little will ever be done.
  4. Teach the system in schools. There is deficiency in BC's education system in that it does not adequately teach civics, politics, and community involvement. Students are leaving our high schools without a basic understanding of how our government and the political process work. I only recently learned in university that the political process was much closer to me than I knew, and that people like myself could, in fact, have an impact. Developing political participation and public pride must take place early - well before we can vote. There must be a more thoughtful effort put in place to connect 'high politics' to local grassroots politics.
  5. Parties must reach out to youth more profoundly, and more often. Facebook and Twitter aren't enough; social media must complement, not substitute, one-on-one contact and outreach. Election campaigns currently focus their time and resources on seeking the highest voter return. In doing so, their outreach ignores the low-voting youth (because they don't vote) and focuses on other groups that do (perhaps senior citizens). This is a cyclical pattern that will continue to marginalize the youth vote.

When working for the Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee in Toronto last year, I remember going around giving presentations on this very topic to Jewish youth. There, we were using relevant issues to recruit and galvanize volunteers and supporters for the 2008 Federal Election. It was interesting to me, because I was trying to convey an old concept - you can get involved and make a difference - to a new audience. This not-so-new concept was popular, popular enough that many would sign up to donate a few hours on an election campaign to have their individual and communal voice heard.

At the end, it wasn't that hard to get a few empowered young citizens out to vote, volunteer and tell their friends to do the same. It just took a little effort.


COPE's Rachel Marcuse has something to add to this debate, in this week's issue (online, anyway) of the Georgia Straight ... http://www.straight.com/article-248182/lets-share-power-and-put-end-ageism

While I agree with Gabe on a number of his points in terms of how to increase youth voter turnout, I think that most commentators on this issue are ignoring issues crucial to the debate:

1. Today's youth think globally:This generation is fundamentally different than those preceding it in its global perspective. The internet and seamless wireless communication have created a world in which issues are far more "global" than ever before. This allows youth to address issues from around the world rather than only those in their own backyards. Instead of attending the local "townhall" meeting, a young person interested in activism can get involved with other youth around the world interested in the same issues. Evidence of this lies in the fact that even those MOST interested in politics (students in political science) are increasingly focusing on international relations, conflict studies, and international development.

2. Today's youth are distracted: Given the advent of blackberries, twitter, endless television channels, and global mass-marketing, today's youth are more saturated by media than any generation in history. Getting their attention is tough, any (especially Canadian) politics don't seem so attractive. Youth are used to ideas packaged in a 30 second soundbite on Youtube, and anything more slips under the radar of their already over-saturated attention-spans.

3. Today's youth are increasingly specialized: In university (and increasingly in high school), students are placed into programs which fail to stress civic engagement or understanding of the social world in which we live. Gone are the days of the true "liberal arts education." Students in engineering, business, science, and computer programming are not provided with the necessary understanding of politics, history, etc, and this is breeding a generations (and populace) which is increasingly living within specialized silos.

4. Politics isn't the only game in town: NGO's have more power now than at any time in history. Not so many years ago the most effective manner in which to have an impact on politics was to "join the party"--this isn't necessarily that case any longer. Engaged students often join interest groups that represent their specific issues (ethnic associations, religious groups, human rights organizations--there are too many out there to count. Any the truth is--a substantial portion of the membership is youth! These organizations play a substantial role in policy making both in Canada and abroad. Moreover, continuing with the trend towards "specialization," this type of involvement caters to the new generation of more "issue-specific" citizenry.

5. Low youth voter turnout isn't new: Youth have always voted in lower numbers than the general population. Most don't really pay substantive taxes, most don't really need the substantive health care (yet), and most don't really live in the "real world" of balancing rent, bills, and the like. Coupled with the other issues mentioned above, it hardly seems surprising that youth turnout is dipping even lower than in previous generations.

Just my thoughts!


Despite the best efforts of Gabe, and the rationalizations of Rachel Marcuse, our system of governance is in extreme trouble. The ten-percent drop (!) in Provincial voter turnout between 2005-2009 can be directly attributed to voters dying on the top end, and voters not giving a damn on the low end of the age spectrum.

The collapse in voting rates is not the only evidence of the narcissism of this generation, organizations relying on volunteers are facing huge struggles.

I predict that the next civic election, or the one after, will have voter turnout in the high-20s in terms of eligible voters. Federal and Provincial elections will drop to the high 30s within a decade.

Young people have a sense of entitlement thanks to the generation that spoiled them. I guess you can say that it's not their fault. However, only they can fix the problem, and there are few signs that enough of them care.

Dylan, is it possible the so-called "global thinkers" are using it as an excuse to not "think local"? Try to get a household of young political activists to get out and participate in a neighbourhood litter pick-up, raising money for a community project, or walking a street safety patrol - or any local priority requiring grassroots help. It's tough because they appear to want to solve the world's problems rather than those in their own backyard.

To me, you have the greatest impact by serving your community first.

I enjoyed reading the article because I am finding myself more politically involved than ever before and in the age demographic of a young 30 something.

I think Garfinkel raised some good points in his article, particularly the point that the democratic system needs to be taught and modeled in the school system more. Studying education at the Master's level, it becomes increasingly more obvious that democracy has been left out of school curriculum all together and it is rarely used in the classroom. It is also hardly ever modeled in the classroom or in the school system. Students rarely have the ability to vote or change a school policy and only if their is a strong student government established are there any student for student voting. Imagine students being able to vote for their choice of final mark or curriculum content? In my opinion and that of many other educators, it is a very rare thing to see democracy in schools which is one of the most MAJOR issues with low youth voter turnout.

Another idea that was not presented in the article, and an issue which only the Green party federal candidate Elizabeth May has articulated, there is a serious flaw in our electoral system when young people at university are not able to vote because their voting card has been sent to their family's home address. This was always an issue for me in University and even though most young people can present a piece of I.D. and still vote, not many avid young people go out of their way to do so. Plus, this year's federal election required that all voters have a piece of I.D. with their home address on it and it had to match their voting card. How accessible is that for the younger generation? I think there is a serious case of ageism and discrimination inherent in our electoral process which comes from years of protecting the rich at the expense of the lower classes. The political candidates may claim to care about the youth and voter apathy but really, it upholds the status quo. Sad, but unfortunately true.

Hi Gabe et al,

Thank you very much for continuing the discussion!

A few additional thoughts to add:

First, I wrote a summary of all the feedback I heard after the initial op-ed and summarized it here: http://www.samaracanada.com/blog/2009/08/response-to-your-response-more-fodder.aspx

Some of these comments were on the reasons for youth apathy, but many touched on broader apathy and reasons why. I thought you may be interested given the great discussion here!

Second, for those interested in youth voting in particular, there is a great study commissioned by Elections Canada that's worth a read. It does a good job of articulating what we know and don't. I've linked to it in the blog post above.

Finally, Andrew Potter wrote a column in last week's Maclean's on the same topic, arguing that youth apathy is as old as time itself and these are really stage-of-life issues. This is something raised in the Elections Canada article as well. Unfortunately it's not online yet but should be soon. However, for the retro among you, you can read it in the paper copy!


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