Friday, 6 May 2011

"The Youth Vote" and the 'Mob' Mentality

Several critics are lamenting the failure of vote mobs and other student-based initiatives to increase the rate of voter turnout among Canadian youth in the most recent federal election.  Preliminary analyses suggest young Canadians stayed home every bit as often as in the past, despite the efforts of Rick Mercer and other well-intentioned advocates.

Beyond "slacktivism", of the main reasons why:  With all the talk about “the youth vote”, many of us forget that young Canadians are a very diverse group.  In particular, we have fallen victim to equating “the youth vote” (and interests, issues, etc.) with “the student vote”.  The result has seen a further alienation of those young Canadians who are least likely to engage in the political process: non-students.  

Students are among the most engaged and visible members of their generation.  They congregate (on campus), making them easier to contact, mobilize, and organize to vote (especially during the school year).  They have higher levels of education and income – resources that enable them to engage more effectively in political life.  For these reasons, students receive a relatively high level of attention during election campaigns (at least compared to non-student youth).  Political parties of all stripes place student issues in their platforms, whether focused on student loans, tuition, research and development, RESPs, or other campus-based concerns.  Most MPs are former (or current) students, themselves, and can empathize with campus-goers.  And election authorities have made efforts to add polling stations on campuses in order to make voting easier for students.  All told, the quantity and quality of this attention may not be enough for student advocates, but it is certainly more than non-student youth receive.

Given this, it is not surprising that students (and youth who have completed post-secondary education) are every bit as likely to vote as older Canadians.  This bears repeating:  Despite (or perhaps because of) all of the attention the media, politicians, and election officials pay to boosting “the student vote”, young Canadians in colleges and universities are no more likely to stay home on Election Day than older Canadians.  (Results from Canadian Election Studies dating back to 2000 confirm this little-known fact.)

All of this campus-based attention is not only misplaced, however.  It may actually be detrimental to the cause of boosting overall youth turnout.  By equating the student vote with the youth vote, and focusing solely on student interests, we are further marginalizing those young Canadians who cannot or choose not to attend universities and colleges.   Their issues remain off the political agenda, even largely unknown, as we assume we are addressing them by talking about campus concerns.  Because non-students are disengaged from elections, they will not be engaged by politicians, and the vicious cycle will continue.   

This is not to say students should stay home, nor is it to say politicians and the media should ignore students’ concerns.  Rather, it is to emphasize that, just as there is no single “ethnic vote”, “women’s vote”, “francophone vote”, and so on, Canadians under the age of 30 come from a variety of backgrounds.   As Brenda O’Neill (University of Calgary) reminds us:

It would be a mistake to think of youth in Canada as a homogeneous group; although they share similar challenges, experiences and norms as a result of their age, there are many additional factors that are likely to result in variation in their willingness and capacity to engage in the political and civic worlds. Age is but one element of youth identity; the interplay between the various roles and identities that shape engagement is complex, interesting and worthy of additional research attention. Among these elements are education, income, gender, Aboriginal status, ethnicity and immigrant status, and each has received too little focused attention among researchers who examine engagement.

If vote mob organizers and other youth-vote advocates want to make a larger impact in future elections, here’s a modest proposal:  focus on boosting non-student turnout.  Ask your usual participants to bring non-student friends to these events, and encourage them to participate in the electoral process.  Get to know their concerns, interests, and issues, and join them in voicing these in the next campaign.  Host the events off-campus, and target ridings where turnout is lowest.  The real growth in youth voting will come among non-students.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Election 2011: Who's missing?

Much has been made of the dramatic vote swings witnessed in Monday’s historic federal elections, and party leaders and pundits have spent hours interpreting the results in search of what Canadians “really said” on Election Day.  Unfortunately, we’ve missed the main message by focussing on the wrong sets of numbers.

Let’s start by looking at what we usually do:  seats and votes.  According to these statistics, the “blue wave” brought Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party of Canada 24 additional seats and its long-awaited majority, while the “orange crush” saw Jack Layton and the New Democrats vault into second place, earning 65 more seats than they had at dissolution.  These victories came at the expense of the Liberals and Bloc Quebecois (both down 43 seats), and overshadowed the Green Party’s first-ever victory with the election of leader Elizabeth May. 

Beyond the seat totals, most observers point to the popular vote earned by the various parties as an indication of the outcome.  With the support of 39.6 percent of voters, the Conservatives now form one of the most “manufactured” majorities in Canadian history – second only to the Chretien Liberals’ 1997 victory (when they won 155 of 301 seats based on 38.5 percent of the popular vote).  These results have renewed calls for electoral reform, with critics claiming that the opposition parties were punished – and the Conservatives rewarded – by our first-past-the-post electoral system.  (One should note, however, that the New Democrats actually benefitted from the FPTP system, too.  They received 33 percent of the seats on the strength of 30.6 percent of the vote.)

While they await final verification by Elections Canada, these numbers do accurately reflect the mainstream view of the election’s outcome.  One important statistic is missing, however:  voter turnout.

Preliminary figures released by Elections Canada estimate Monday’s turnout at 61.4 percent.  This rate was up slightly from 2008, when participation reached an all-time low of 58.8 percent.  But it was a far cry from the predictions offered by many pundits and politicians, and remains the third-lowest turnout on record.  

This means that 38.6 percent of eligible Canadians chose not to participate in Monday’s election, yet their role in the outcome receives no attention in traditional reports of the results.  This is puzzling considering non-voters make up the largest segment of the Canadian electorate – larger than voters supporting the Conservative government, and larger than all of the opposition parties combined.  This is not the first time, of course.  Non-voters made up the largest segment of the electorate in 2004, as well.  In terms of provincial election results, the same is presently true across most of the country (save for Saskatchewan, Newfoundland and Labrador, and pei).

Some may see little reason for concern in these figures.  After all, recent research indicates that there is very little distinguishing the political views of voters and non-voters.  These studies offer little reason to believe that the outcomes of Canadian elections would have differed drastically, had more citizens turned out to vote.  Moreover, provided non-voting is evenly distributed across the entire population, and provided Canadians appear satisfied with the status quo, long-term decreases may be an indication of the health of Canadian democracy.  Canadians may be content that their vote will not make much of a difference, given that a change in government is unlikely to result in a change to their everyday lives; or they may feel comfortable allowing someone else to make the necessary decision on Election Day.  In this sense, many non-voters may be considered “couch” supporters of the governing party (who see little reason to turnout, given that their party of choice will win the election, regardless of their vote); “closet” supporters of the opposition (who see only futility in casting a ballot for a losing party); or “political drop-outs” (who are so ill-informed that their participation in the election could only serve to distort the outcome).

By contrast, others are likely to be concerned with low voter turnout.   That our first-past-the-post electoral system “manufactures majorities” is worrisome enough, they claim; the fact that legislative majorities and mandates are being based on the expressed support of so few eligible voters is even more disconcerting.  Other critics may point to several surveys at the federal level that challenge the assumption that non-voters are drawn proportionately from all segments of the population.  Studies consistently report an under-representation of youth, Aboriginals, recent immigrants, members of visible minority communities, people with lower levels of education, and lower-income individuals among Canadian voters.  This “participatory distortion” suggests that only certain types of people are involved in the electoral process.   This may establish a situation in which active citizens are over-represented in terms of their influence on public policy, yet unrepresentative of the general population with respect to some politically relevant characteristic(s).  Because they are more likely to vote (or otherwise engage in politics), public officials are more likely to hear, respond to, and behave proactively in the interests of the most active citizens and groups.  By the same token, parties have fewer incentives to engage with those people and communities who are least likely to participate.  These distortions may create a vicious cycle, in that marginalized groups may feel even less inclined to vote, thus further distancing themselves from the electoral process. 

Without further research, it is impossible to decide between these two normative evaluations of the 2011 federal election.  Previous studies appear to support both causes.  Beyond doubt, however, it is time we start reconsidering our use of “popular vote” totals to depict the outcome of Canadian elections.  Non-voters should be counted in our calculations.