A general election will take place in Ontario Thursday. I am not sure who will win the election, or if they’ll come to power with a minority or majority government. But I am sure that politicians, pundits, and the public will complain about the youth voter turnout rate and call my generation politically apathetic.
Youth voter turnout rates in Ontario and Canada alike have generally been quite low – 38.8 per cent of Canadians aged 18-24 voted in the 2011 federal election. Turnout was even lower in Ontario’s provincial election the same year. Still, complaints linking low youth voter turnout rates to apathy are misguided for a few reasons.
Primarily, low youth voter turnout rates don’t mean that youth don’t care, or inform themselves, about politics. Instead, for many including myself, it means that we’ve informed ourselves and have no interest in what we see. All political parties in Canada fail to address youth in any meaningful sense. These parties seem to think that youth aren’t worth their time because we don’t vote. But this only leads to lower voting rates, continuing a vicious cycle. If political parties started to speak to youth, perhaps youth voting rates would increase. Until then, youth shouldn’t be chastised for refraining from taking part in an ineffective system that cares little about them. Voting is a right, but it should never be a responsibility.
Additionally, a low youth voter turnout rate implies that youth are politically apathetic only if voting is the sole form of political expression. It’s not. I don’t vote and I consider myself to be more politically active than most friends I know who do vote. Youth politically express ourselves in a wide range of manners other than voting, including protests, direct action, online activism, etc. The problem is that many Canadians too narrowly define what counts as legitimate political expression. These Canadians won’t only say that voting is the best form of political expression. They will also condemn other forms of political expression, and claim that they should be avoided.
I participated in the Quebec student strike a couple years ago. This was probably the only time in my life that I felt politically optimistic. I was part of a grassroots movement pursuing demands generated by youth, led by youth, and launched by youth on our own schedule. Not the election schedule. You’d think that those who complain about youth apathy would have celebrated this movement. Instead, the largest student movement in North American history, that inspired thousands of people around the world, got branded as a band of thugs causing mayhem. People would rather youth wait until someone decides we should be politically active so we can stand in line for hours and then vote for the least awful candidate.
There are numerous cases like this in Ontario as well. Take the recent incident of University of Ottawa students shutting down a “Men’s Rights” event held on campus. I recognize that this sort of political activism isn’t for everyone. But it is undoubtedly a form of political expression that takes a little more initiative than voting. This incident has been widely derided, but you can’t have it both ways. If you want youth to be politically active, you must accept that this may come with consequences you don’t like.
At this point, those who fetishize the vote will probably say something like, “Ah yes, be young, express yourselves. But just know that all of that nonsense won’t change anything. Voting is the only way.” This is not true. Voting may play a role in bringing in minor reforms, but as the anarchist Emma Goldman famously claimed, “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” Of course youth can be more politically active. This is true of all age groups in Canada. But this doesn’t have to solely or primarily mean, or be measured through, increased voting. My hope is that low youth voter turnout rates imply that youth are rethinking what political participation should mean. Instead of seeing low youth voting rates as a crisis, I see it as a chance for positive change. A chance to think outside the box of electoral representative democracy.
Davide Mastracci is a writer and student at McGill University where he studies political science and history. He is a member of The Globe and Mail's Student Advisory Council.