Increasing the youth vote may be a challenge, but it could change the face of Canadian politics, and perhaps even lay the groundwork for a real progressive alliance.
There’s a lot of talk about a possible spring election. Much of it has focused on which voters should be targeted and which issue, if any, might break the logjam that is Canadian federal politics. While going after the elusive youth vote is often seen as a waste of time, I wonder if it might not offer a way to secure a real progressive coalition in Canada.
While the potential of the youth vote is too often tinged with terms like “apathetic,” “lazy,” and “entitled,” largely unexplored are the reasons why encouraging the youth vote matters. This is not a partisan political proposition – either you believe in democracy or you don’t.
Practically speaking, it is younger Canadians who will inherit the mess we are in now and the failures of previous generations. It is our children who will face the deficits, the divisions, and the damaging effect of winner-takes-all politics in Canada.
Philosophically, it seems clear that there is a relationship between ignorance of Canadian history, lack of understanding about our system of governance, and the current era of declining voters. Voting is literally the least you can do to meet your responsibilities as a Canadian citizen. Yet, unless people feel their vote matters, they will not feel compelled to participate come election time.
Politically, it is of interest, particularly to the nascent Canadian Progressive Alliance, to note that the younger the voter, the more progressive their views. While Canada/U.S. comparisons ought to be taken with a grain of salt, it was the turnout in the youth vote that made the difference in the U.S. presidential election in 2008 and the midterms in 2010. There is reason to believe youth voters could have a similar effect in Canada.
So how might federal leaders embrace and entice young voters? Here are a few suggestions:
1. Support the reduction of the voting age from 18 to 16. If you can drive, join the military, and pay taxes, you should be able to vote. Registering to vote should be easy, accessible, and even possible to do on-line. However, voting is not enough. Tie this proposal to a renewed investment in teaching Canadian history, explaining responsible government, and focusing on broader democratic reforms.
2. Embrace a renewed focus on education. It is absurd that students in some provinces take only half a credit of civics, and others none at all. Canadian history matters, and if the education system does not treat our democracy as important, why would student voters perceive it to be?
3. Make youth participation in our political system more meaningful. For example, support the return of a National Youth Parliament, promote national televised youth debates, and embrace new media by sponsoring online polls through party websites and moderated inter-party discussions with youth. Real political leaders invest in the next generation, build the brand, and think long-term about securing their legacy.
4. Encourage parents to get involved in sponsoring register-to-vote days in local high schools, CJEPs, technical colleges, universities, and anywhere else youth congregate – including online. Make this apolitical. I don’t care who youth vote for; as long as they vote and make their voice heard, we will be better off.
5. Stop talking about weed. This means you, Iggy. No one cares. It is a waste of time and resources. It makes you look old, and even more boring and out of step with the real problems Canadians face.
6. Start talking about why we need more experimentation in our public policy. Provide policy-wikis to allow citizens to suggest revisions and highlight concerns through more iterative approaches to policy-making. While we know many of policies pursued by Harper’s dinosaur party from Alberta are nonsense, admit that there are things we don’t know. Embrace the credibility associated with honesty. Combine new policy “experiments” with locally based research to learn what works and what needs to change. Publish everything online!
7. Stop shying away from the real democratic renewal needed in Canada. It is time to think carefully and seriously about the costs of our winner-takes-all voting system, which is failing to provide real representation, ensure stable governance, or inspire confidence that working together works. There are many variants of proportional representation and the old arguments about instability and pizza parliaments seem quaint today. It’s coalitions or Conservatives, Canada – and our current system is making a mockery of meaningful democratic representation.
There has been a lot of talk about the need for a game changer in Canadian politics. Embracing the youth vote is a good place to start. Canada needs a Progressive Alliance to better reflect the fact that a majority of Canadians vote for more progressive platforms. This might scare Bay Street and the old rich white dudes that run our politics. Tough. Today’s Conservative party is attempting to remake Canada by undermining traditional values of tolerance, mutual respect, and social justice. It’s time to give the next generation a chance and engage in a new kind of politics that for practical, philosophic, and political reasons reaches out to youth. The lessons of 2008 and 2010 down south are clear, and it’s time to start thinking about the demographic realities in Canada.
While dinosaurs eventually became extinct, it took a long time. When it comes to the problems facing Canadian governance, patience is NOT a virtue.