Call it rock the vote or a magical mystery tour, but whatever was happening aboard a bus cruising down Kingsway last Saturday (October 10) was a very fun way to participate in democracy.
Zach Gray of Vancouver indie-rock band the Zolas played guitar and belted out their hit song “You’re Too Cool” while enthusiastic backup vocals were provided by the Boom Booms’ Aaron Ross, Geordie Hart, and Tom Van Deursen.
“Every morning chipping away,” Gray crooned with everybody singing along. “’Til the walls fall down!”
That bus was the third like it to snake around Vancouver that rainy afternoon. The vehicles met crowds of young music fans at Broadway and Cambie Street, people piled in, then the groups toured from one advanced polling station to the next to help the passengers vote and get a jump on the October 19 federal election.
Just before embarking on the last ride of the day, Gray said he’s optimistic that 2015 will see young people break from their reputation for apathy. The reason he’s so sure is Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper.
Gray explained that although people can feel overwhelmed by the amount of information usually required to make an educated voting decision, that isn’t the case this year. “This is the first election in my lifetime where it’s this obvious who to vote against,” he said.
The campaign Gray joined on the bus, Turn Up YVR, is a nonpartisan initiative that’s encouraging everyone to vote regardless of the party they support. But there was one refrain the Straight heard repeated on those buses again and again: anyone but Harper.
On that note, here’s an interesting pair of statistics: in the 2011 federal election, Conservative candidates received a total of 5.8 million votes, and in 2015, there are 5.8 million eligible voters who are between 18 and 29 years of age.
If it’s true that young people are more likely to vote against Harper, they could see him removed from office quite easily. If they voted.
Of course, we know that many do not. According to Elections Canada, in 2011 only 39 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds left the couch for the polls, and for 25- to 34-year-olds, that number was only 45 percent. For comparison’s sake, 75 percent of the 55- to 64-year-old crowd voted in 2011. Elections Canada data shows roughly the same results for the 2008, 2006, and 2004 general elections. In those years, not once did even 50 percent of Canadians aged 18 to 34 make it to the polls.
Despite the depressing math, a plethora of individuals and organizations are working around Vancouver this week to get young people involved in politics.
A few hours before that bus ride with the Zolas and the Boom Booms, the Straight caught up with Vancouver singer-songwriter Dan Mangan, who was also at Broadway and Cambie to help with Turn Up YVR. He conceded many before him have tried and failed to get young people to vote.
“What makes us think this will work?” Mangan asked with a laugh. “We’ve seen four years of majority government with Harper and it’s pretty scary,” he said.
This election cycle, Mangan is also leading a campaign of his own, Imagine October 20th. Similar to the anyone-but-Harper sentiment expressed by Gray, the stated objective there is not to elect the Liberals or NDP but instead to remove the Conservatives from power.
“It’s also about painting the whole process with a more optimistic tone,” Mangan said. “I think there is so much mudslinging and attack ads in the political sphere that what we want to do is think about what a breath of fresh air eating breakfast on October 20th would be with Harper gone forever.”
Music is just one of a number of tools that young people have deployed this year in the hope of getting their peers to the polls. South of the border, pundits have dubbed America’s 2016 presidential contest the “Snapchat election” because candidates such as Hillary Clinton and Rand Paul have reached out to millennials using that mobile app. But here in Canada, 2015 youth-voter drives are consciously going old-school.
In a telephone interview, Aaron Bailey, president of UBC’s student union, the Alma Mater Society, said that perhaps the biggest impact
on youth engagement this election is coming from a partnership between universities and Elections Canada.
For the first time, Elections Canada facilitated student voting with advanced polling that opened on 39 campuses across Canada from October 5 to 8. The pilot program let people vote where they attend school regardless of the riding in which they were registered, removing what many visiting students view as a significant barrier to participating in national elections.
“All they needed was…[approved ID] and then they could vote anywhere,” Bailey said. “Which was huge, just making it so convenient for students so that they didn’t really have an excuse not to vote.”
According to Elections Canada, more than 70,000 people voted that way, though that preliminary figure also includes ballots cast at a number of community centres that ran a similar program.
On the phone from SFU, Simon Fraser Student Society president Enoch Weng and VP external relations Kathleen Yang said the same Elections Canada program was a big hit at SFU. “All of our social-media channels have been used to promote that,” Weng said.
Yang, however, emphasized that “social media alone is never enough.” She said the student society decided to focus on face-to-face events; for example, SFU’s main campus hosted an all-candidates debate for Burnaby North–Seymour. “We had four candidates participate,” she said. “Of course, the Conservative candidate declined.”
(Conservative candidates across Canada have largely boycotted riding debates and refused media requests, which the Toronto Star and other papers have reported is part of a partywide policy. The Conservative party did not respond to repeated Straight requests for an interview on the subject of the youth vote.)
Alex McGowan, VP external for the Kwantlen Student Association, framed the issue of low voter turnout as a matter of chickens and eggs. Do candidates ignore young people because they don’t vote in large numbers, he asked, or are youths apathetic because politicians don’t speak to their issues?
Regardless of the answer, McGowan continued, Kwantlen hoped to address the problem by facilitating meetings where students and candidates could get to know one another. He explained that although voter drives often rely on digital tools such as Instagram and email blasts, Kwantlen’s goal this year was to use real-world encounters to convince students and politicians of one another’s relevance.
“There’s been a demographic shift where now the millennial generation, 18 to 35, is the largest potential voting bloc, larger than the baby boomers,” McGowan said. “That means young people have a lot of potential, a big weight, and if they come out and vote, policies will start to be aimed at them.”
Meanwhile, a number of organizations are reaching out to youth with strategic-voting initiatives that aim to prevent left-leaning (often younger) people from splitting their votes among the Liberals, NDP, and Greens. Those groups suggest people vote for whichever candidate it is in their riding who stands the best chance of defeating their Conservative counterpart. The largest and best organized is Leadnow, which bases its national recommendations on polling data collected for specific contests.
There are also a number of less conventional voter drives targeting young people. For example, Vancouver resident Karilynn Ming Ho launched a Change.org petition that’s calling on Canadian hip-hop superstar Drake to encourage his fans to vote. At the time of writing, it had more than 8,000 signatures. There is also a chain of Vancouver marijuana dispensaries that is using an upcoming Snoop Dogg concert to attract attention to the October 19 election. But perhaps the biggest stir has come from Shit Harper Did (SHD), a troupe of Vancouver comedians that has attracted national headlines with its entertaining and well-researched lampooning of the prime minister.
In a telephone interview, SHD writer and coordinator Emma Cooper agreed that the group has successfully tapped into the youth vote like few other organizations in Canada. She said that was no accident.
“We’re very research-based,” Cooper said. “The whole point is that it looks fun. But you work really hard to make jokes and to target and make humour that engages young people. It’s about looking and seeing that people are not voting, seeing the research that proves that, and asking what they are going to respond to.”
Despite a Facebook page with more than 50,000 likes and YouTube videos with six-figure views, Cooper conceded that SHD faces the same million-dollar question as most modern-day campaigns: how to turn online clicks into real-world votes.
“We’re not going to tell you how to vote,” she said, acknowledging the contradiction there with a laugh. “We’re just doing whatever we can to inform people with our reach and our competitive advantage, where we have a huge online community that is kind of in this positive place because we’ve made a bunch of jokes.”
On the phone from UBC, Bailey answered the same question with a more pointed response. “There is no excuse and no opportunity to complain among young people unless they actually take the time to educate themselves and vote,” he said.