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Saint Mary's University students walk past a booth set up by Elections Canada at the Halifax university in 2006. (Sandor Fizli/The Globe and Mail)
Saint Mary's University students walk past a booth set up by Elections Canada at the Halifax university in 2006. (Sandor Fizli/The Globe and Mail)

Globe editorial

Dear young people: Not voting? No one cares Add to ...

Much has been made of the fact that the new federal budget is craftily geared by the Harper government to appeal to specific segments of the voting population. Seniors are getting all kinds of goodies, some designed specifically for their age group and others that are available to all, but which will (nudge nudge wink wink) benefit them the most. Two-income couples with children under 18 are big winners, too, as are small-business owners.

Left off the gravy train are young people. Why? Because they are way less likely to cast a vote than older people are, and they don’t make up as large a share of the population as they used to. By being disengaged, they have now become conveniently ignorable, not just by the government but by the opposition parties, too.

In fact, it is arguable that, to some extent, all the federal parties are strategically relying on young voters to continue their apathetic ways. Everything is seniors this, middle-class hard-working families that. Very few policies are being directed at young, unmarried, new-to-the-work-force voters, and none of the parties seems particularly interested in harnessing the energy of new, social-media-savvy voters the way Barack Obama did when he won office in 2008.

In Canada, the steady decline in youth voter participation over the past generation has now become a vicious circle, in which the less youth vote, the less the parties reach out to them, and the more disengaged they become.

This is nothing less than a crisis for a democratic country. A 2013 Parliament of Canada study concluded that more young voters than ever are dropping out of electoral participation at all levels of government. Worse still, their apathy is permanent. They don’t start voting as they get older, which is one of the key reasons the average participation rate in Canada is dropping. A country where, a generation ago, more than 75 per cent of the population routinely voted in major elections is now lucky to have a 61 per cent turnout.

Instead of doing something about this dilemma, the current political discourse is designed to exacerbate it.

Canadians aged 18-34 have always been less likely to vote than people 35 and up. This isn’t new.

But two things have happened. First, the gap between the participation rate of voters aged 18-34 and the overall participation rate in any given election has steadily widened since the 1980s, according to Elections Canada. Before 1980, you could expect the youth participation rate to be about 10 percentage points lower than the overall turnout. In the 1970s, it wasn’t unusual to have a total participation rate of around 80 per cent, and a youth participation rate of 70 per cent.

That started to erode in the 1980s and hasn’t stopped since. In the 2011 federal election, the overall turnout was 61.1 per cent, but only 38.8 per cent of voters aged 18-24 cast a ballot. The gap between the two rates was more than 22 percentage points.

Older voters, meanwhile, remain about as likely as ever to cast a ballot. In 2011, the participation rate for people aged 58 and up was over 70 per cent. The decrease in the average turnout of the past 35 years is almost entirely due to the drop in the youth vote.

The second thing that has happened is that Canada’s population has gotten older. All those youthful boomer voters of the 1970s are now getting close to retirement, if they aren’t already there. In the meantime, Canada’s birth rate has fallen. Back in the 80s, people over 65 made up 10 per cent of the population. Today, they make up 16 per cent – one in six.

And, for the first time, there are now more Canadians aged 55-64 than there are aged 15-24. Thirty years ago, the younger cohort was twice the size of the older one.

So put yourself in the shoes of a battle-hardened Conservative, Liberal or NDP strategist. You can dedicate part of your election campaign energies toward a shrinking group of voters who have, at best, a 40 per cent chance of casting a ballot. Or you can ignore them and precision-target a much larger and growing group that will reliably vote at a rate of around 75 per cent. Which would you choose?

In the 2011 federal election, all three major parties focused on the middle class and on families. They made few direct references to youth. When they did, it was more often about “youth crime” or “at-risk youth” than it was about youth unemployment or university tuition. The parties are doing the same in this election, all led by the Harper government’s pro-senior, pro-family budget.

The terrible downside to this precision campaigning is that it is training young people not to participate in democracy. We know from the data that young Canadians who don’t vote now probably won’t vote later in life, and yet the message the under-25 crowd is getting in this election is, Your ballot is not needed.

Young people are smart – they understand the data as well as anyone. They know where they stand. They undoubtedly suspect that their well-documented apathy has been factored into strategists’ planning, which only deepens their disengagement.

What they want is a leader who speaks to their desire to change the world for the better and to rise above partisan politics. The late Jack Layton caught the imagination of many younger voters in 2011, but that’s not something that his successor, Thomas Mulcair, has going for him. Stephen Harper knows better than to even try. Justin Trudeau is the youngest of the bunch, but he never stops talking about middle-class Canadian families. His battle-lines are clear.

Is there a way to get young Canadians back in the game? Not in this election, unfortunately. The apathy of young voters has caused politicians to tune out. Politicians tuning them out has made young voters more apathetic. The vicious circle goes round and round. And we’re losing a generation of voters.

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