Trevor Ritchie was watching a televised baseball game in a restaurant when he discovered politics. He was 13, and found himself distracted from the play by the federal election returns scrolling past on the screen.
Now 20, he's a third-year political science student at the University of British Columbia, and, unlike most of his cohort, he has taken every opportunity to vote since coming of age.
As one of 7,000 canvassers on the anti-HST petition, Mr. Ritchie is getting a kick out of being part of something big - the chance to make B.C. history by helping introduce the province's first citizen-initiated law.
"It really does feel like a historical moment, it is a chance to impose direct democracy," he said.
It is also a chance, love or hate the harmonized sales tax, to drag disengaged voters back to the voting booth - or introduce them to a ballot for the first time.
If the current trend holds, fewer than half of eligible voters will bother to turn out for the next provincial election, set for 2013. That decline can be attributed, in large measure, to the demographic Mr. Ritchie represents, people who simply aren't interested in making it out to the polls.
I think the problem is with the political class. Politics is an elite game Kennedy Stewart, public policy professor
The key to breaking that slide is giving voters an issue to feel passionate about, to motivate them to get out on election day.
The anti-HST petition will be filed with Elections BC at the end of this month. If successful, it will be the first citizen-driven law to be put before the legislature. It proposes that the government repeal the 12-per-cent harmonized sales tax, which melds the provincial sales tax with the federal goods and services tax.
Mr. Ritchie has been spending up to 10 hours a week collecting signatures on the petition, and has found young people the most reluctant to sign. Would that change if they saw there was a tangible result? Would the success of a citizen-driven process spark something in a generation that has been convinced their votes don't count?
Kevin Ginnell teaches 120 first-year political science students at Simon Fraser University and at Douglas College. He sees the potential for the HST to engage his students in the political process in a way that conventional political activism does not.
"They are not motivated to be involved in party politics, but they do engage in issue politics," he said.
Kennedy Stewart, an associate professor in the School of Public Policy at Simon Fraser, cautions that direct democracy doesn't necessarily translate into voter participation.
"The Swiss are referendum crazy and they have some of the lowest election turnouts in Europe," he noted. Still, he believes the initiative - and the possibility of recall campaigns to follow - is a healthy outlet for voters frustrated with the political process.
"I don't like the word apathy, it puts the blame on the voter," he said. "I think the problem is with the political class. Politics is an elite game."
Perhaps the bigger opportunity the HST battle offers is that it may open the door to a new, third political party. While the governing BC Liberals have taken a dramatic hit in the polls, support has not simply shifted to the rival New Democratic Party.
"If a new party is going to emerge from this, it is going to turn politics upside down in B.C.," predicted pollster Evi Mustel, owner of the Mustel Group. "What we are seeing now is, people don't feel good about voting for either party. There is that frustration, we are always caught between having to vote left or right. What has been missing is that middle party."
That third-party option has been a rare breed in B.C.'s political history, but it seems more likely than getting large numbers of high-school students to willingly abandon baseball for civics lessons.
As one of his parting shots before the end of his term as B.C.'s chief electoral officer, Harry Neufeld urged the provincial government to make civics a mandatory part of the high school curriculum. Instilling some sense of civic duty in young minds is critical to ending the steady decline in voter participation, he believes.
"When I went to high school, civics was interesting and I was interested and so was my entire cohort," he noted in a recent interview. He graduated from high school in 1971, in the age of Trudeaumania, the October Crisis and the Vietnam War. "Politics had meaning in our discussions as teenagers. We couldn't wait to vote. That's absolutely not the case with teenagers today."
Margaret MacDiarmid, the B.C. Education Minister, got a taste of that during the last election campaign, her first as a candidate. "I would knock on a door and the people would say, 'I'm not voting, it won't make any difference.' I found it so difficult, because there I was believing I could make a difference."
She is not convinced a mandatory civics class would change that attitude, but she agrees the education system has to do more to teach democracy.
The HST debate has destabilized her B.C. Liberal government and threatens to sink some of her colleagues through recall, but she accepts it may have an upside.
"It is good that people are engaged," she said. "I would have preferred it not to have happened in this way, but if the net effect is that more people come out and vote, that is a very positive outcome."
B.C. voter turnout in decline
While it is getting easier to vote in B.C. - with longer polling hours, more opportunities for advance voting and online registration - voters are steadily disappearing.
B.C. general election - percentage of eligible voters who cast a ballot:
1983 - 70.5
1986 - 65.8
1991 - 64.03
1996 - 59.11
2001 - 55.44
2005 - 58.19
2009 - 50.99
Bucking a trend
Bill Vander Zalm plans to deliver his truckload of petitions calling for the end of the HST to Elections BC on June 30. The agency has 42 days to verify the signatures to ensure they are from eligible voters. If the petition succeeds, it will be the first time the requirements of the province's initiative and recall legislation have been met. Six previous attempts by citizens have failed in the 14 years the law has been on the books.