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.

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