In the November 22 issue of Maclean’s this fall, columnist Andrew Potter had this to say about the generation I belong to:
The members of the “millenial” generation have been accused of being a self-centred and politically apathetic cohort of cool-hunting technology addicts whose central claim to notoriety is that they have the attention span of a puppy dog on Red Bull. In last week’s mid-term elections, they did their level best to prove their critics right.
The context of this diatribe is an article entitled, “Where Was the Youth Vote?”, examining the effect poor youth voter turnout had on the recent mid-term elections in the US. Though I think my generation has a little more to offer than a puppy on Red Bull (I for one don’t pee on the rug), I can’t say I blame Andrew Potter for blaming us.
According to Potter’s article, Obama was voted into office in 2008 on a wave of support from new voters. A vital component of this wave was the youth vote: over 50% of eligible voters between 18 and 29 showed up at the ballot box (the second largest young voter participation rate in US history). Fast-forward to the 2010 mid-term elections, and only about 20% of young voters bothered. Apparently two years can do a lot: “Yes We Can” has turned into “Do We Have To?”.
Yes. We do. I know voting for a more-or-less not famous Democrat or Republican during the mid-terms isn’t quite as exciting as being given a chance to vote for the first black US President ever, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important. Unfortunately, being a Canadian, I am not able to vote in US elections.
A little closer to home the picture doesn’t seem quite so bleak. The Stats Canada website didn’t have a neat little figure like “such and such percentage of eligible voters between 18 and 29 voted” (at least not that I could find), but I was able to glean that 59% of Canadians in their 20s have voted in at least one election. This is pretty much on par with the 58.8% of eligible Canadians who voted in the 2008 federal election. This doesn’t mean we should rest on our laurels. There are still 40% of Canadians in their 20s not doing the bare minimum when it comes to participating in democracy in Canada, and I see no particular virtue in being only as bad as everyone else.
All is not lost, however. The Stats Canada webpage helpfully goes on to cite a report called “Willing to Participate: Political Engagement of Young Adults” that found that while voter participation among young people was low, young adults are just as likely as any other age group to participate in non-voting political activity. This non-voting activity includes signing a petition, boycotting a product, or choosing to buy a specific product for ethical reasons. Social networking has made these non-voting activities all the easier (no more walking door to door collecting signatures: 200 000 Canadians can express their disapproval of Harper proroguing Parliament on Facebook!).
I understand that it’s easy to become disenfranchised with the government and have a preference for non-voting activity over voting in elections. As one of my friends (a Poli Sci grad) recently pointed out, government’s hands are often tied when it comes to the issues that are important to us. For diplomatic reasons (or because they want to get re-elected), governments are sometimes unwilling or unable to go to certain places or to tackle certain hot button issues and leave that gap to be filled by NGOs, non-profits, and advocacy groups. Being the young people we are, it’s reasonable to expect that we’d rather put our energy and faith into supporting non-voting activities that actually seem to have an impact than cast a ballot and try to choose one bunch of stuffy old jerks over another bunch of stuffy old jerks. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t vote.
The only way to make politicians care about the concerns of young voters is to make them think they actually have something to lose if they don’t. A lack of voter participation in elections allows the governing party to pander to the demographic that voted for them– and no one else. An example of this would be the tempest in a teapot the Conservative government created this summer over “privacy concerns” and the mandatory long-form census. What do they care that minority and low-income groups might be poorly represented by a voluntary census? Statistically, these groups are less likely to vote, and so the government has nothing to gain in the polls by troubling themselves over the concerns of those groups, and everything to gain by catering to the caprices of the far right groups who “don’t think it’s the government’s business to know how many bedrooms they have”, because these are the groups that can be counted on to show their support on election day.
The government doesn’t really seem to have a lot do with my daily life. I suppose as a BC theatre artist, the provincial government has a lot to do with the fact that I had to take a job in a different sector to support myself, but really, we all just seem to hum along no matter who’s in power and maybe we assume we can just hum along forever and it will never matter who we have in government. Well, someday it will matter. If you ever have children, it will matter what the education system is like. When your parents (and someday you) retire, it will matter what pensions are like. And unfortunately, someday, without warning, it will matter very much what the health care system is like.
I am incredibly impatient. I hear a lot about my generation having a short attention span and being addicted to instant gratification and maybe that’s true. I hate the excruciatingly slow pace of getting something, ANYTHING, done in government. The systems I mentioned above are in need of massive change if we want to preserve the quality of life we enjoy now. But change comes in baby steps. So why not take the baby steps now, become part of a strong voting base NOW, so that by the time you really need change to occur you’ll have provided the foundation to bring it about?
Marketers have realized that the millenial generation is the most important consumer demographic, because we can be counted on to buy things. Wouldn’t it be great if governments treated us as the most important citizen demographic because we could be counted on to vote?
Voting is practically one of the easiest things I’ve ever done in my life. Not registered to vote? Register with Elections Canada online at www.elections.ca and click on “Voters” in the upper left of the home page. Are you one of those lucky readers who can vote in the US? Visit www.usa.gov/Citizen/Topics/Voting/Register.shtml and get your ass registered.
Technically, Canada isn’t scheduled for another election until 2012, so in the meantime, effect change in that non-voting political way we’re so good at. The internet is full of information about how to get involved with just about any cause under the sun. Seeing as how we’re all “cool-hunting technology addicts”, I’m sure we’ll have no trouble finding it.