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Kids these days: Canada's inter-generational voting gap

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To counteract the record low 58.8% voter turnout in the 2008 federal election, there was an unprecedented push to engage voters this past election.

With only 37% of 18 to 24 year-olds casting a ballot in 2008, many of the ‘get out the vote' efforts in 2011 were focused on young voters: Rick Mercer rants, vote mobs and vote socials, ShitHarperDid. It looked as if things might be different this time around.

So, what happened? Voter turnout was up slightly this election, to an estimated 61.4%-the third lowest in history. We're still waiting for full voter-turnout data so we don't know whether there was a significant increase in the youth turnout at the polls but there was some interesting data released by Statistics Canada yesterday looking at the reasons why people didn't vote.

The most common response: 28% of Canadians said they were "'not interested in voting', which also includes feeling their vote would not have made a difference in the election results." Reasons for not voting differed by age group:

"Among young people aged 18 to 24 who did not vote, the most common reason was that they were not interested in voting, cited by 30%. Another 23% reported they were too busy, while 11% said they were out of town or away.

"For adults aged 25 to 34 who did not vote, 31% indicated they were not interested in voting, while a nearly identical proportion (30%) said they were too busy.

"Among seniors aged 65 to 74 who did not vote, the two most common reasons were their own illness or disability (22%) and that they were not interested (21%). The most common reason among individuals aged 75 and over was illness or disability (44%)."

Political parties tend to focus on older Canadians during election campaigns. There are proportionately a lot more older people in Canada-we have one of the world's largest baby-boom populations. The median age in Canada today is 42 and the typical voter is in his or her early 60s.

According to a post-election analysis by Frank Graves, president of EKOS Research Associates, less than half of Canadians under 45 vote. Younger Canadians have a voting likelihood of at most 40%, decreasing to 30% for those under 25. Canadians over 45, who are more likely to favour the Conservatives, have a voting likelihood starting at 60% and rising with age to more than 80%.

Why are so many young Canadians opting out of the electoral process? The Statistics Canada survey is telling but has its limitations. When they asked Canadians why they didn't vote in 2011, "for the sake of brevity" StatsCan lumped together "not interested in voting" and "vote would not make a difference" when they are in fact two very different things.

My theory is that young people don't vote because they don't see the federal government as a force for change, not because they don't care. When was the last time a federal government instituted a new national program along the lines of CPP or Medicare (I'm not talking about PR stunts like the Millennium Scholarship Program or the Universal Child Care Benefit)? As a Gen-Xer, governments have been scaling back-cutting programs that benefit the many while cutting taxes for corporations and the rich-for as long as I can remember. The message to Canadians: "don't count on us to help you out, you're on your own."

Our first-past-the-post electoral system is also a deterrent to many would-be voters, old and new. It's easy to feel as though your vote doesn't count but nothing could be further from the truth. The Conservatives won their majority by a combined margin of victory of just over 6,000 votes in the most closely contested ridings across the country.

Things in Ottawa would look a lot different if we had a strong youth vote, which is generally more progressive, to balance out the more conservative older vote. According to Frank Graves' report, if Canadians under 45 had voted in the same proportion as those over 45, there would have been no Conservative majority but more likely an NDP-led coalition.

Of course, our system is far from perfect but not participating in it only ensures it won't change. Electoral reform is badly needed but it's almost certainly off the table for at least four years. (Though that's not to say we should stop pushing for it.)

The challenge now is how to engage and empower young Canadians-and not just during elections. There's an inter-generational gap developing that can no longer be ignored. We need to ensure youth become more involved in the national conversation and make sure their voices are heard, instead of expecting them to do all the listening.

Kerri-Anne Finn is Senior Communications Officer with the CCPA National Office.

This post first appeared on Behind The Numbers.

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