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Engaging Young People in #Elxn44 and Beyond: Reversing the Trend

Young people in Canada are a political force. With under three weeks left in this snap election, there still remains an unprecedented opportunity for candidates and parties to engage young electors in meaningful ways both in this election and going forward. As community leaders and organizers, there is a critical role for us to play in ensuring that we not only hold candidates accountable for their engagement efforts, but also support the youth and community members we work with to find connections to the systems of power that have the ability to impact the issues we care about in the long-term.

Every election cycle, we see this persistent narrative come up repeatedly that youth don’t want to be engaged or are apathetic. This is far from true. According to research Apathy is Boring conducted with Abacus Data, since 2019, there has been a 10-point increase in interest for Canadian politics amongst youth - 60% of young people have at least some interest in Canadian politics.

More than that, youth aged 18-34 are the largest segment of the voting population. That's over seven million diverse, unique, and innovative voters looking to be engaged. A global pandemic has made it increasingly difficult to ignore the role the government plays in our day to day lives, a possible driver of this positive trend.

The hesitation to vote often lies in the trust with formal institutions, especially in their role in making a measurable impact on the issues that youth care about. Many find the system inaccessible or hostile to their participation in general. And, therefore, they don’t feel equipped or welcome to participate in elections when they come around.

Research shows that young people (especially between the ages of 16 and 25) are at a critical stage in their cognitive development. One which allows them to be less risk-averse, more innovative and creative, and less tied to the way things have always been done. When faced with collective challenges at the scale of the climate crisis, inequality of wealth, or systemic racism - innovation and out-of-the-box thinking are no longer optional.

Youth, however, are systematically excluded from participating in decision-making processes. We often prioritize experience over innovation, and neglect the powerful potential of the partnership between new ideas and innovation coupled with the experience to bring those ideas to life. This is true in our democratic decision-making as much as anywhere else. Young people are opting to expend energy in areas where they can see their ideas come to life, choosing to invest their energy in areas such as activism or the grassroots, to push forward on issues that they care about.

Youth are larger than a voting block. We are a powerful constituency that is often overlooked outside the election cycle.

Despite all this, youth today are actually slightly less cynical about politics than older generations. So how do we engage our youth?

First, build their confidence and arsenal of resources. Specific, accessible, and relevant information about where, when, and ways to vote - especially in a pandemic context - is crucial. Encourage the people around you to review their options and make a plan to vote. Plans are shown to improve follow-through and remove some of the uncertainty around the act of voting. Ultimately, voting is relatively simple in Canada for most people - it took an average of 7 minutes in the last election. Getting to the door is often the hardest part.

Once we’ve worked out the “how” of voting, we focus on the “why”. As simple as it sounds, the fundamental building block of democracy is dialogue. Start a conversation about the things that matter to us, and encourage discussion and the exploration of new ideas, perspectives, and solutions.

Studies both in Canada and the US have shown that simply asking a young person to get out to vote makes it significantly more likely that they will. Prioritizing direct, decentralized, peer engagement allows for networks and social circles to model forms of engagement that are authentic and relevant to individuals. In this context, voting can be reframed as one (important) form of democratic engagement, among others, rather than the only way to participate in our democracy.

We at Apathy is Boring, alongside the Democratic Engagement Exchange at Ryerson University, co-founded the Canadian VOTE Coalition in 2019. This initiative is an open, non-partisan voter engagement effort focused on supporting community-based organizations and local leaders to mobilize their networks to vote to accomplish just this - addressing local and specific barriers within communities through relationships of trust and talking to young people about voting.

The value of these programs speaks for itself. Research from Abacus Data (2015) shows that one in three youth were reached by an organization getting out the youth vote during the 2015 election. As a result, voter turnout went up close to 20 percentage points.

Democracy is bigger than voting but voting is one important way to have your voice heard. This should matter to all Canadians who want future generations to continue to lead Canada forward. Our democracy is bigger than the outcome of any one election - it is about who is making decisions that will shape Canada’s future.

The last two elections have seen higher turnout among young people than previous elections, but we need ongoing investment and care to ensure this trend continues. We need to continue to reach out to youth, talking to them, and building their confidence.

Put simply: if people are not voting - democracy doesn’t work. The problem can seem insurmountable until we realize we all have the power to make a measurable impact in our families, our networks, our communities. The more we engage one another, the more potential we create to build a democracy which is equitable, fair, and works for us all.