What will it take to get young people to vote?

By Steve Paikin - Published on October 2, 2018
people entering a voting place
People arrive for early voting for the 2018 Ontario election in Kingston, on May 29. (Lars Hagberg/CP)

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One of the great mysteries of the 2018 Ontario election is why so few young people voted. In fact, it’s a problem in nearly every election.

It’s not as if the four major parties failed to formulate policies designed to attract younger voters. Promises on offer included free post-secondary education for eligible students, free prescription-drug coverage for those under 25, a $15 minimum wage — heck, even reducing the minimum price of a brewski to a buck.

But none of it seemed to move the needle: youth participation in the election was still discouragingly low. Overall turnout was 58 per cent, but millennial voters were vastly outnumbered by their older counterparts. Young people remain “the least motivated group to come out and vote," Eli Yufest, CEO of Campaign Research, told the Toronto Star in June.

This is particularly a problem for centre-left parties, which bluntly acknowledge that their election chances are directly tied to their ability to engage young voters.

“The NDP is not going to win an election until young people vote,” admits Michael Balagus, who this spring managed the Ontario New Democrats to their second-best finish ever. He made the comments at a symposium at Ryerson University last week.

“Our challenge isn’t persuading young people we’re for them. It’s getting them out to vote,” he added.

Campaign managers from all four major parties expressed their frustration at having been unable to turn younger voters on to politics. David Herle, who managed both Kathleen Wynne’s majority-government win in 2014 and her historic defeat this year, pointed out that there was plenty for young people in the Liberal platform.

“They weren’t aware of it,” an exasperated Herle said. “They’re so disengaged from the political process; the level of apathy is quite shocking. And they may have just taken for granted that all the things we did would continue.”

The Tories disabused young people of that notion almost immediately after taking office, announcing that they would make changes to OHIP+, the previous government’s universal drug-benefit plan for those under 25. They’re also leaving the minimum wage at $14 instead of raising it to $15, as the Liberals had planned to.

It’s wrong to say that young people are disengaged from the issues. Many participate in non-governmental organizations or volunteer. “They participate in democracy,” Balagus clarifies. “They just don’t vote. The challenge for us partisans is to convince them we can be a vehicle for them.”

Symposium moderator Martin Regg Cohn, the Toronto Star’s Queen’s Park columnist, noted that Justin Trudeau and Barack Obama both achieved a big uptick in young-voter participation.

“The commonality between them is celebrity,” said Kory Teneycke, who managed the successful Progressive Conservative campaign for Doug Ford. “If you’re in the world of the Kardashians, you’re going to be interested in Justin Trudeau’s socks.”

An audience member pointed out that he wasn’t surprised by the lack of youth engagement in partisan politics: “They don’t know how parties or legislatures work, because they only get one semester of civics in Grade 10. We need to ensure that by the time they graduate from high school, they know how the system works.”

Herle seemed particularly despondent. He’d designed a campaign to appeal to young people, but the effort failed.

“I resist the deification of the youth voter,” he told the gathering. “They don’t care about politics. They care about people — Trudeau or Obama. But that’s a flash in the pan.”

At another symposium at Ryerson before the election, Herle said that he was trying to design a campaign to attract younger voters, who get their information from social media in seven-second bursts “and with the volume turned down.” Herle said that he’s come to despise social media’s role in campaigns and the almost-impossible challenge of trying to tell a candidate’s story in mere seconds.

He pointed out that this wasn’t a problem only for Liberals. In the 2015 federal election, Herle conducted focus groups of young people who had no idea who NDP leader Tom Mulcair was.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Herle said. He told the focus group members: “Mulcair is in the news every day. Every day! You’re just not interested.”

Cohn said surveys indicate that 25 per cent of Ontarians claimed they’d been too busy to cast a ballot last June. A deeper dive into the numbers shows that 40 per cent of millennials said the same thing.

“Too busy to vote?” Cohn asked. “Really? In June? Exams are over by then.”

Alas, none of the campaign managers had any suggestions for improving the situation. But clearly, the three parties that didn’t win in June are more dependent on young people — and young people broke their hearts.

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