The voter participation in the Ontario general elections has been consistently dropping during the last decade, based on the data available from Elections Ontario. If you look at the more detailed data for the past federal elections, available from Elections Canada, you will see that voter participation is especially low among younger Canadians. In the 2011 federal elections, less than 40% of 18-24 year old Canadians participated and the same downward trend is also evident in the previous elections.
Political scientists look at the election results not only based on the popular vote cast for each party, but also take into account the non-voters population. If we look at the 2011 federal election results from this perspective, less than 16% of the young Canadians that were eligible to vote, voted for Prime Minister Harper’s Conservative Government.
This low level of youth participation not only prevents younger Canadians from having a strong representation in the government decision making process, but can also be a threat to our long term national security and our global competitiveness. The future generation’s indifference can lead Canada to an era of leadership deficit. Today, leaders are faced with complex challenges and the world around us is changing rapidly. We need a large and strong pool of talented leaders, ready to face enormous challenges and able to move our nation forward.
While this downward participation trend has been evident during the last several elections at different levels of government, our current leaders have made no significant effort to address this problem. Right now we are in the middle of a provincial campaign in Ontario. However, other than the usual rhetoric, none of the political parties is actively campaigning for youth involvement. Wynne, Hudak and Horwath are not to be blamed though. They are running a very short election campaign and their main focus is on bringing out those who usually vote for them rather than convincing younger Ontarians who do not vote in large numbers.
No single entity carries the blame for this crisis of youth indifference. All politicians, community leaders and media influencers should work together to address this issue.
Politicians must lead the nation’s effort to increase public participation in the democratic process. They have the necessary tools to promote public engagement and they must refrain from imposing limitations (such as bill C-23, which may prevent some from participating in the elections). Elected officials’ actions and behavior should also be part of this national engagement project. Many people who do not vote, believe that their votes do not make any difference. This way of thinking is usually caused by the actions of politicians and elected officials. Elected officials should understand that they are public servants above all, and their primary responsibility and accountability is to their constituents.
Our education system has perhaps the most important responsibility among all stakeholders. Young Canadians must learn about the role of the government in their day to day life. Engagement cannot be created through assignments and multiple tests. Our education leaders must look at this national effort as an engagement campaign and implement a teaching methodology that will be appealing to and engaging for a broader base of our students.
It is the responsibility of our media to engage the Canadian public with the political news. While the job and the expertise of journalists and media experts at CBC for example should be public engagement, in my opinion so far they have done a poor job in attracting younger Canadians. They may want to study the successful strategies to improve their audience’s engagement that some of their colleagues in the United States are implementing. Many say that Canadian politics is boring. In my opinion the issues we are discussing (e.g. healthcare, job creation, etc.) are similar to issues being discussed in the U.S. and many other countries. It is the role of our media to keep Canadians engaged with the day to day political news by keeping politicians accountable and by promoting debate and discussion among elected officials. The difficult part is that we are living today in a world of viral videos and social media. If we want to engage our younger generation, we have to speak their language.
Some partisan short-sighted politicians may think that increasing youth involvement may not be in their favor in the next election or that they may lose a few seats because of specific policies that attract young voters. The increasing trend of indifference we are observing in Canada is however more important than the short-term political gains of one party. This is a non-partisan problem and the burden is on the currently engaged Canadians to expect a solution for this problem from their leaders. Otherwise our nation will collectively pay a high price in future.