Ballot box paradox

Patrick Butler
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In Canada, most young people don’t vote. When it comes to casting ballots, the majority of us just don’t show up.
Today’s youth are engaged and connected in myriad ways through the digitized environments in which we thrive. More than any generation before us, we’re information sponges with our fingers on the pulse of what is happening around the world. We’re aware of the issues and we know what matters to us.
But during the last federal election, only 39 per cent of eligible voters aged 18-24 filled out a voting card.

Youth are caught in a situation where, on the one hand, politicians don’t cater their mandates to young people because they don’t vote, and on the other, young people don’t become involved politically because all they see is a broken system that doesn’t respond to their needs.

Big-ticket items for youth, such as the environment and education, are markedly absent from major policy initiatives (last week’s elimination of student loans in this year’s provincial budget being a dramatic exception and an incredible step in the right direction). Elections seldom include meaningful high profile public dialogue on climate change, for instance.

Still, young people are constantly told they should vote to have their say and to fulfil their civic duty. If you don’t vote, you automatically forfeit the right to have an opinion.

It’s a valid, but frankly paternalistic argument for a generation of voters disillusioned by the political process and unsure whether their vote matters.

 From the perspective of an idealistic crop of young voters, it’s hard not to become disenchanted when the powers that be seem disinclined to engage with your generation — a typically unreliable, largely withdrawn voting base.

Youth are often told to mobilize so issues we care about will be heard. Young people are a traditionally marginalized voting demographic, we’re told, but one which can have an enormous impact if it so chooses.

There’s precedent here. In 2012, when massive “Maple Spring” demonstrations by student protesters rocked Montreal, education funding became a meaningful part of the public dialogue leading up to the Quebec provincial election. In that election, 62 per cent of 18-24 year-old Québécois voters turned out, a 26 per cent jump compared to the 2008 provincial vote.

However, continually regurgitating how young voters need to act on their own initiative to make their opinions more valued is a finger-wagging cop-out for political parties. Not only does it do nothing to help the already entrenched ideals that perpetuate the malaise between young voters and the system, it reiterates a paradox where young voters are supposed to court the politicians empowered with representing them.

Certainly, young people should take a stronger role in politics and finally fulfil the fantastic potential our numbers and our new ideas imply. But it is also up to political parties to actually engage with young voters by highlighting issues that matter to younger demographics.

Dissuading young people from feeling their voice doesn’t matter and their interests won’t be heard requires concrete action. As for the problem being purely one of apathetic, disinterested youth, the notion is self-serving and myopic.

It’s ridiculous to assume young voters will come out to the polls in droves to vote in an election they don’t think matters to them. To wait for that far-fetched epiphany would be impossibly wrong.

Political parties could profit from engaging the youth vote, an untapped resource long shunted in the political process. By opening up a greater discussion on issues like the environment, which are prioritized by young voters, parties could capitalize on a new wave of first-time electors and stand to gain as much as Canadian democracy would in the long run. As of now, Canada’s disconcerting youth voter turnout rates indicate a huge disconnect between what by all accounts is an extremely well-informed generation and polling stations empty of young Canadians.

But sitting around pointing fingers won’t solve anything. Something’s gotta give before more young people give the system their vote of confidence.

Patrick Butler, who’s from Conception Bay South, is studying journalism at Carleton University. He can be reached by email at

Organizations: Carleton University

Geographic location: Maple Spring, Montreal, Quebec Canada

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Recent comments

  • Cashin Delaney
    April 01, 2014 - 01:09

    "If you don’t vote, you automatically forfeit the right to have an opinion." This myth has been recenty fondled by Wangersky, and if you keep mauling it, it won't grow. Stay in school. "Something’s gotta give" = end provincial government - just Feds and municipalities. That is my opinion, I didn't vote, probably never will. I can't vote for people with limited imagination. I can barely read this.

  • M
    March 31, 2014 - 11:12

    Students are also put out by the student groups who claim to represent their interests. Mostly pro-union, lefty driven agendas. Students should be most concerned about the environment and the money being spent by government today that they will be forced to pay for in the future. Clean air, clean water and lower government expenditures and future taxation should be the priority list.