The May 9, 2017 BC election resulted in a precarious minority government for the Liberals, who were just one seat short of forming a majority government. While 60 per cent of eligible voters reportedly cast their ballots, it is often those who do not make it to the polls who decide the result in close elections like these — and amongst these potential voters, youth are often the wildcards.
Kate Curtis, a fourth-year linguistics student, voted in the provincial election in her home riding of Vernon–Monashee. Despite the riding running traditionally Liberal, she said she decided to strategically vote NDP because their platform aligns with her environmental concerns.
James Tugman, a fourth-year business technology student, did not vote. Provincial politics are not particularly interesting to him — especially compared to the current volatility of American politics — and he doesn’t believe in “voting for the sake of voting.”
Comments like these are characteristic of many voting demographics — there are always some who do and some who do not vote for various reasons. More commonly, though, numbers show that most eligible young people do not vote in the provincial elections. In the 2013 BC elections, only 47.9 per cent of people aged 18 to 25 voted.
While this number is significantly higher among post-secondary students — 74 per cent of which report having voted before — students like Tugman prove that not every post-secondary student can be painted with the same brush.
Dr. Gerald Baier, an associate professor of Canadian politics at UBC, remains convinced that active political participation is an imperative for youth.
“I think it really is just about accepting your responsibility as a citizen of a democratic society to impact and influence the institutions that will ultimately make laws on your behalf,” he said.
Amongst the flurry of Facebook statuses, Snapchat filters and “I voted!” stickers, youth political engagement still lingers as one big question mark. With the provincial election results still unclear until advance voting and absentee ballot counts, The Ubyssey dug into how youth voters like Curtis — and those who abstained like Tugman — shaped the provincial election.
In terms of advanced polling, it appears that the early bird might just get the worm.
Advance voting polls saw record high turnout across the province, UBC included. News outlets reported advance voting at nearly 10 per cent of all votes cast on general election day, a nearly 70 per cent increase since 2013.
While Elections BC has focused on making advance voting even more accessible by increasing the number of days to vote in advance from four to six, the numbers do not necessarily mean that post-secondary students voted more.
“Advance voting was designed to make voting more convenient — and it succeeded. It does not mean, however, that making voting easier in this way increases the overall turnout rate,” said Dr. Richard Johnston, a professor of political science at UBC who also holds the Canada Research Chair in Public Opinion, Elections, and Representation.
“What it does is that it enables people who were most likely going to turn out anyway to do so at a more convenient time.”
In fact, he added, youth voters probably aren’t as likely to use advance voting as older voters.
He does think, however, that youth voters in general are turning out at increasingly high rates, but that this narrative is far from dominant in the media. He pointed out that in the 2013 BC elections, voters aged 18 to 24 turned out at a higher rate than voters aged 25 to 34.
“It doesn’t have the “man bites dog” quality that some of these stories have, but I think actually — although the overall turnout rate is lower than it ought to be — it’s not like young voters are over-contributing to this low turnout anymore,” he said.
Baier noted that if there is an issue with lack of youth voter engagement, university students may be the wrong ones to target.
Former AMS VP External Kathleen Simpson also highlighted that it is important to recognize the differences between post-secondary students and the general 18 to 24 demographic when it comes to voting. According to the Student Issues Survey, which the AMS helped conduct earlier this spring, 74 per cent of post-secondary students voted in the 2015 federal election, compared to the 68 per cent turnout of youth in general.
“Post-secondary students are actually quite dependable voters, which I think is something that is often [overlooked] because they are lumped into the rest of their age range in terms of whether or not they are voting,” said Simpson in a March 13 interview with The Ubyssey. “[The Student Issues Survey] shows that students are voting and we can count on them to vote again in the future.”
And yet, there is still a substantial population of post-secondary students who do not vote. Amelia He, a first-year science student, did not feel that it was right to vote simply because everyone tells her to do so. As well, she expressed that she did not feel like she knew enough about each party’s platform to make an informed decision.
“From what I’ve seen around campus, all of the posters were just encouraging you to vote without explicitly telling people what the policies are. Am I just supposed to vote because it’s so established that voting is my duty as a citizen?” she said.
Baier does not think this should be an excuse in a time when it is arguably easy to get informed.
“We live in a kind of information-saturated world, and you can get information in so many ways. I think students sell themselves short — they might know what Kim Kardashian wore, but maybe not the NDP’s position on the Site C dam. Those are both equally accessible, [so] let me Google that for you,” he said.
“I’m not trying to sound condescending towards young voters, but there’s a lot of information out there.”
Students do face other challenges: moving to a new city and starting university makes it difficult to connect with politics, which can vary a great deal from country to country and even between provinces and territories within Canada.
“Elections BC has worked very hard to make it easier [to vote], but if you think about that, what are we talking about? We’re talking about the last week of exams. How many students are still here? What are they thinking about?” said Johnston.
To ameliorate these barriers to voting, the AMS ran the Champion the Vote campaign, which included a debate at UBC with three of the candidates running in the Vancouver–Point Grey riding. The AMS also collaborated with Elections BC to hold voting stations in the Nest — complete with ice cream sundaes — in order to make voting convenient for students. However, on-campus advance polling only began at UBC the day after exams ended by regulation of Elections BC.
Johnston stressed that this scheduling difficulty should not be overlooked when thinking about why students cannot or do not vote.
“It’s actually pretty tough for UBC students as a collective group to exert the weight that they represent as a fraction of the electorate because they’re not necessarily here at this critical time.”
Creatures of habit
Increasing youth voter turnout may not just be about getting out the word, but also about empowering students to get involved in politics from an early age.
“Hypothetically speaking,” said Johnston, “it might be beneficial to lower the voting age to 16 in order to get more university students to vote.”
“One thing we do know is that one of the most powerful influencers for whether or not you turn out this election is whether or not you turned out to the last election. There’s a kind of habit thing here,” said Johnston.
“It’s not necessarily the case that high schoolers are going to be casting votes at astronomical rates. It’s just that they’re going to start earlier, they’re going to start thinking about it earlier.”
This habitualization strategy is the idea behind initiatives like Student Vote, where elementary and high school students cast their votes in a mock polling station. Over 170,000 students voted in the mock 2017 BC provincial results with 39 per cent voting NDP, 29 per cent voting Green and 25 per cent casting their ballots for the BC Liberals.
“The goal is that by casting a mock ballot, they are learning about the candidates and the issues,” said Dan Allan, director of content at CIVIX, the organization that runs Student Vote as well as other civic engagement projects.
“The hope is that when [students] do turn eighteen and they can vote, they’ll continue on as lifelong engaged voters.”
Away with apathy
The stereotype that young people do not care still exists — fuelled, in part, by the fact that there are many eligible youth voters who do not vote. Curtis suggested that this stereotype may actually serve to exacerbate the problem.
“[Students] are often just dismissed as not knowing or not being informed, even though we’re in this position of being in higher education and in a concentration of educated thought,” said Curtis. “We’re put in this self-fulfilling bias of youth don’t vote, so we don’t vote.”
According to Johnson, fighting the apathy of young voters, then, would also need to fight the perception that provincial politics is not directly relevant to the lives of students.
“I watched two debates amongst the leaders … [and they] were filled with content about policies of enormous relevance. Climate change. Affordable housing. Transit,” he said. “You can agree or disagree with them on these issues, but all of these things affect us all profoundly.”
At a time when polling indicates that post-secondary students are nearly evenly-split between BC’s two major parties — with 43 per cent aligning with the BC Liberals and 45 per cent with the NDP — youth have the opportunity to change results simply by choosing to vote.
“I’m confident that every student at UBC has the capacity to learn and make decisions,” said Baier, noting that the provincial government is also in charge of important portfolios such as education and health care. “And they are as good voters as any other voter out there.”