Older voters have traditionally wielded the most influence at the ballot box. But in election 2015, asks Linda Nazareth in iPolitics, will young voters step forward to seize the balance of power?
By Linda Nazareth, Sept. 12, 2015
Young people often complain about being left out of the democratic process. The demographics, however, tell us they could have plenty of influence on this federal election — if they choose to assert it.
If 2011 voter participation patterns are followed, voters on Oct. 19 will be disproportionately over the age of 55, with a large number of them older than 65. If, however, any party manages to mobilize the youth vote, we could see a significant shift in who chooses our leaders.
So are young voters going to let their parents and grandparents choose a government for them again?
We see it every election: not enough people vote, and those who do tend to be older. According to Elections Canada, the youngest voters in the 2011 federal election were the ones least likely to actually get out to the polls. Those aged 18 to 24 had a voter participation rate of 38.8 per cent and those aged 25 to 34 had a rate of 45.1 per cent.
At the other end of the spectrum, the voter participation rate for those aged 55 to 64 was 71.5 per cent, while for those aged 65 to 74 it was an incredible 75.1 per cent. No wonder politicians campaign hard in “older” neighbourhoods.
As elusive as the youth vote has been in recent years, this time around the candidates would be well-advised to go after it hard. Members of the ‘millennial’ generation — those born since 1980 — are becoming an increasingly important population bloc and a potentially important voting bloc as well.
According to a just-released study by Samara Canada, while millennials may not be voters, they are plenty political. Not only were they more likely as a group to engage in online political activities than the broader population, they were as likely as seniors to have volunteered in an election or to have signed a petition. If someone could get them to turn out this time, it could have a substantial impact on the outcome in specific ridings — perhaps on the entire election.
To get an idea of just how powerful the youth vote could be, I did a few projections. I wanted to know what the distribution of voters would probably look like if 2011 voting patterns were followed — and what it might look like if younger voters participated more like older ones.
To look at the number of potential voters by age, I used population growth figures from Statistics Canada showing the way that each age group has changed since 2011. I then applied the voter participation rates to each of those groups.
Result? If 2011 patterns are followed, we will have a rather old subset of the population choosing our next government. In fact, if the voter participation rates are the same as they were in 2011, 45 per cent of the votes cast will come from those aged 55 and above, and about 24 per cent — almost one vote in four — will come from those over 65. Just over 20 per cent of votes will come from those under 35, even though they now comprise 28 per cent of the population compared to the 20 per cent aged over 65.
But what if those aged under 35 voted in the same numbers as those aged 55 to 64? As you can see from the graph below, that would make a dramatic difference to outcome of the election. It would, in fact, give younger voters a decisive advantage over older ones in choosing the government. In this scenario, 30 per cent of voters would be under 35 — and only 21 per cent would be over 65.
Sadly, it does not look particularly likely that young voters will reverse the old trends. In a 2011 post-election survey conducted by Statistics Canada of those 18 to 34 who did not vote, around 30 per cent said it was because they “were not interested in voting”.
For them to vote, someone would have to get them interested — make them believe there’s something for them in participating in the process.
Could disturbingly high youth unemployment rates and buzz about a Canadian recession be enough to get young Canadians to vote? Possibly not. Voting among all groups does tend to go higher when the economy is weak, which is something we saw in 2011. Fresh on the heels of the global crisis and a Canadian recession (and an increase in the unemployment rate), Canadians voted in greater numbers in 2011 than they did in 2008 in all age groups … except for those under 35.
As unhappy as younger Canadians were about the economy, they clearly did not feel that any political party offered much hope to change things around. Still, the Samara study suggests that things might have been different if politicians had reached out to them a bit more. According to their research, voters under 30 were far less likely to have had direct contact with a political party or politician, whether by mail, online or in person.
So the youth vote is there for the taking, but it’s likely to be as elusive in 2015 as it was four years ago. The politician who can convince younger voters he or she can do something for them might turn that advantage into victory. Younger voters could win too — by taking ownership of their share of political power. But it’ll only happen if they want it to happen.
Linda Nazareth is an economist, author and broadcaster, and a senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.