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Want to get out the youth vote? Start (really, really) young

The Globe and Mail by Anna Lennox Esselment 22 September 2015

Our daughter was about three months old when she attended her first campaign event. She could drop a pamphlet like a pro at five. Our son was two when he learned the art of clapping at the right times during a rousing speech at a political rally. Our children, in other words, aren’t strangers to political campaigns.

Even more importantly, they are quite familiar with the act of voting. Since we became parents, my husband and I have never voted alone. No matter the election – federal, provincial or municipal – we schlep our three children through rain, sleet, snow or sunshine to the designated polling station.

They like to follow the bright yellow signs pointing the way to the ballot boxes. They occasionally broadcast who we’re supporting to those around us in line (not cool, but what can you do?). We take them with us behind the cardboard fixtures so they can see the ballot, identify the candidates and the parties, and help us mark the X in the appropriate circle. They also lend a hand with putting our votes in the official box.

In short, they are keen participants of the democratic process. Why do we bother with this when, for much of the time, they couldn’t even write the letter X, much less make sense of what we were doing?

In large part it’s because we know that citizens are socialized into politics and voting, particularly by their parents and peer groups. My husband and I are determined to embark on this socialization so that our children are comfortable thinking and discussing issues that are important to them.

Studies have also shown that those people most likely to vote do so because it is habit; this particular habit should be formed at the earliest opportunity. Even though it’ll be eight more years before our eldest daughter can cast her own vote, our aim here is that the thought of not voting won’t even cross her mind.

Despite the efforts we’re making within our own family, the fact remains that only 42 per cent of young people between the ages of 18 to 34 voted in the last federal election. A variety of reasons are offered as to why this is the case, including that young people are not interested in politics, that parties don’t care about people their age and that the issues don’t affect them. I think this is only partially true.

The life-cycle effect goes some distance in explaining why young people aren’t interested in politics. At 19, few young people own homes, have children requiring daycare, earn high incomes on which they pay higher taxes, or have ailing parents who need assistance and support. As one gets older, these things matter more and, consequently, one’s attention is drawn to what governments are doing about them.

But whether political parties don’t care about young voters is less straightforward. Experience thus far suggests that the youth cohort is inherently unreliable, and parties can not (and do not) depend on them to turn out. One might even suggest that some parties count on low voter turnout by young people as part of their strategy for electoral success.

At the same time, parties might also care very much about youth voters because they are largely an untapped resource. First, most young people today have no partisan attachments, so parties vie to capture these new voters to bring them on to their “team.”

Second, many individual seats were won or lost by only small margins. If young people used their collective voting heft, they could change the configuration of Parliament to the advantage of some parties (and to the detriment of others) because of the impact on marginal races. This has implications for issues.

Young voters may not care much about a home renovation tax credit, but they do care about the effects of climate change. They may not worry as much about what the Bank of Canada does to interest rates each quarter, but they are concerned about their chances for meaningful full-time employment after graduation.

In their own ways, each party is trying to address these bigger picture issues, but the millions of new votes cast by young people would also demand that, in future, parties respond more directly to the concerns of that particular voting bloc.

There is an effort to increase turnout at 40 university and college campuses across Canada. A pilot project is underway to facilitate the ability of students at school to cast a ballot for a candidate in their home constituency. The trick is for students to remember the name of their local riding (many of which have changed with new boundary configurations) and the name of the candidate for whom they wish to support.

And, the presidents of Ontario’s 20 universities have signed a pledge committing to encourage young people to get out and vote in this election and in elections in all levels of government, noting that “as incubators of critical inquiry and debate, universities function as core institutions of a democratic society.” As a university professor, that’s a responsibility I also take very seriously.

At our house, we’re trying to do our part by eventually turning our apprentice voters into real and consistent voters. They’ve all mastered the letter X, and our six-year-old son watched the August leaders’ debate over breakfast. He liked the fact that Tom Mulcair smiled the whole time. Our 10-year-old daughter thinks Justin Trudeau is pretty good-looking. Our youngest, at four, appears to be a Harper supporter.

There may be a fight over where the X gets marked on Oct. 19.

Anna Lennox Esselment is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at University of Waterloo.