By Bridgitte Taylor
Current Canadian youth voter turnout
The total number of youth heading to the provincial ballot box has remained stagnant and distressingly low over the past decade, seeing only slight fluctuations since 2005. In the last B.C. provincial election, only 49 percent of voters ages 18 to 34 cast their ballot. It thus bears the question of why?
In an age of millennial scapegoating, it’s easy to pin low youth voter turnout on millennial apathy, adding our most cherished democratic institution to the long list of things that pundits allege young people seek to destroy (after the diamond industry, and 9 to 5 jobs). From 1980 to 2015, federal voting patterns among young Canadians fell well below other age cohorts—a trend that is also reflected at the provincial level. And while research has traditionally suggested that voter turnout strengthens with age, this too seems to be weakening.
Yet in other respects it is clear that young people are far from apathetic. Youth in B.C. exercise their democratic and civic rights every day, through consistently high levels of involvement in civic activities such as volunteerism, student organizing, community service, campaigns, and so on. In addition to this, today’s Canadian youth are more educated, socially engaged, and connected than any generation previous—rendering arguments pointing to lack of political education, incomplete. Moving beyond voter apathy then, the answer to why youth voting turnout remains low could be simple: young people seek the same things that other Canadians seek—to see themselves represented in the institutions that govern them.
First-past-the-post systems deter young candidates
Young voters have been traditionally underrepresented at every level of Canadian politics. B.C.’s current provincial legislature features only one MLA under the age of 35—NDP MLA for North Vancouver-Lonsdale, Bowinn Ma.
Our lack of young representatives could be due in part to our voting system. In single-member majoritarian systems, such as British Columbia’s first-past-the-post (FPTP) system, the design both discourages parties from putting forward young candidates, and makes it more difficult for young politicians to get their foot in the door. In FPTP, the stakes are zero-sum, or “winner takes all”, wherein electoral parties are encouraged to run candidates who will simply garner the most riding votes.
These candidates tend to be middle-aged to senior men of the dominant ethnicity. Of B.C.’s current MLAs for instance, over 60 percent elected are men and none are under the age of 35. Moreover, majoritarian electoral systems create what’s known as “incumbency advantage” where there are high levels of seat retention. This trend is most likely to disadvantage young people and is most pronounced in FPTP systems compared to any other electoral system.
When compared to alternative systems, such as proportional representation (PR), there are various factors that can ease these challenges. In proportional systems, the number of votes a party receives directly correlates to the number of seats it wins, eliminating the zero-sum game that we currently see in current elections. With regard to encouraging representation among candidates, under PR, it is increasingly beneficial for political parties to seek out young candidates, because it is a means of diversifying party slates. This subsequently brings in new constituents for parties.
From a party perspective, having candidates from younger age groups gives younger electorates someone they can relate to, and entices them to vote. Since PR systems do not produce winner-takes-all results, any increase in voter engagement can still be beneficial to party standing rather than a political risk—which it is often classified as under an FPTP system.
Additionally, PR systems can lessen the political head start that many incumbents enjoy, due to PR’s higher-on-average rates of MLA turnover. In B.C., these incumbents are primarily middle-aged, white males, who have traditionally made up the majority of legislature. Higher rates of seat turnover thus gives younger candidates the chance to run and to get their foot in the door, while also allowing for the circulation of new or fresh perspectives that are reflective of the issues young people face in the 21st century.
Proportional representation increases youth voter turnout
When young candidates are included in elections, youth voting turnout, by extension, tends to increase. Young people today face unique conditions and challenges. When it comes to policy, younger age cohorts have different priorities. Youth voters, for instance, more commonly have differing views on educational spending, welfare policies, and so forth, than older cohorts. Incorporating candidates who reflect these policy stances is thereby an important step towards increasing overall youth turnout.
In fact, out of a number of different methods that have been aimed at increasing youth voters—such as party age quotas and lowering the minimum voting age—proportional representation proved the single most influential variable.
A second key reason why PR can increase youth voter turnout is due to political trust. Proportional representation ensures that every vote counts and that the percentage of votes a party receives, directly correlates the percentage of seats they are allocated. This is currently not the case under FPTP, where receiving only 51 percent of the vote can give a single party the majority of the power. This leaves voters discouraged, particularly youth, who often feel they do not have much to gain in the political system anyhow.
Under PR, the notion that individual votes do make a difference, bolsters trust in the political system. Everyone, including youth, has their vote count. When voters, especially young voters, feel that their voices have impact, they are more likely to engage.
In research that examined turnout levels amongst voters aged 18 to 29 in 15 Western European countries, PR systems had turnout that was 12 percent higher than their majoritarian counterparts. It’s worth mentioning that this increase is most likely to be from young people who were previously disengaged with politics, highlighting PR’s capacity to bring in those young voters who feel that they are poorly represented under majoritarian models.
All this to say...time for a change
Young people have expressed that they want change. Not only are they consistently underrepresented at national, provincial and municipal levels, but policy issues that matter to youth often fall by the wayside. When it comes down to it, young Canadians simply want to see both themselves, and the issues they care about, represented in politics—much like all other Canadians.
Research indicates that proportional representation is one way to achieve this. Voting ‘yes’ for PR is an important step toward getting young candidates on the ballot, and toward ensuring that the future generation is engaged in Canadian democracy. But efforts to include young people should not stop at electoral change—ultimately, robust improvement must be holistic. This requires a greater concerted effort by parties and the public to address the issues youth care about. By engaging young people across a variety of political spectrums and institutions, we ensure the strength of Canadian democracy for generations to come.