The case against apathy: Finding value in voting

The first election that Cristina Ilnitchi ever voted in was 2015’s federal contest — the same year she started university. The first year who went on to become the AMS’s vice-president external was already passionate about civic engagement and politics, but university made voting even easier.

“Being around a lot of peers who were engaged in dialogue and conversation about politics and about what’s happening in the world … It just was easy to vote, to be honest, because everybody was already talking about it … It was just a natural step that I would go out to the polls.”

The next federal election is on October 21. For UBC students, heading to the polls can feel like one task too many in the midst of midterms and assignments, but exercising their right to vote is important. Students fall squarely in the largest voting bloc in the Canadian electorate this year, making their voices more important than ever.

Many of those students are voting for the first time, like Emily Mittertreiner. Even in the last election, before they were eligible to vote, the UBCC350 and Climate Hub member helped with campaigning and advocated for climate action.

“I spent a large portion of [the] election cold-calling people to ask them to vote on climate change, even though I [couldn’t] vote myself. So I’m really excited to actually get to [vote] now after having worked on it for so long.”

Strength in numbers

In 2019, voters aged 18 to 38 make up over 37 per cent of the electorate, which means that they’ll be the largest voting bloc in the country.

UBC has 42,852 students who are eligible voters, 28,319 of whom are undergraduate students at the Vancouver campus, in addition to the 5,411 graduate students across both campuses eligible to vote this year.

In an election year, young people have the ability to leverage their voting power to bring the issues they care about into the spotlight.

“This is an opportunity for young people to tell [the] government that, if you want our vote — which is a large portion of the vote — you have to talk about us,” said Ilnitchi. “You have to talk about the issues that affect us if you want us to vote for you.”

But historically, older populations have higher turnout rates, partially because of lived experience. The likelihood of voters turning out has always increased with age because people tend to understand the stakes of elections more as they get older. However, Dr. Richard Johnston of UBC’s political science department noted that the earlier people start voting, the more they understand the importance of the act.

“There’s some pretty good research that shows that the mere fact of voting increases your likelihood of voting the next time … So getting engaged as soon as you can, or even before you can actually vote, attaches you, whether you realize it or not, to networks of mobilization.”

Politically, young people are more mobile. They’re not bound to a particular party the same way that older people are, and that mobility makes them more interesting to parties looking to gain support. On the other hand, that mobility also makes them less likely to turn out, as they’re generally not invested in a certain outcome.

['auto'] Maya Rodrigo-Abdi

That trend is changing as younger voters start to stand up for the issues they care about. Though young voters may have previously felt that their individual votes didn’t matter, they’re engaging more and more with politics and the election.

“We’re starting to feel how imperative it is that we all engage because it is something that’s going to affect us all now and in the future,” said Mittertreiner. “What I’ve seen from my friends and from people in my classes is that people are very aware that they do need to vote and that their vote does actually matter.”

Being engaged in politics, however, can be exhausting, and just keeping up with the news cycle can make someone feel hopeless. Part of why Mittertreiner has become deeply engaged in the climate movement is to fend off the fear that often trails behind the climate crisis. For them, the climate movement has become a community, and the people have become friends, teachers and family.

“Together, we can do really great things stemming from that fear and using that to mobilize us towards hope and towards agency ... Once you get into [a protest], and you’re in this group of hundreds, thousands of other people ... all fighting towards the same thing ­— you’re all holding signs, you’re all shouting —I think that’s one of the most mobilizing, hopeful things that you can do,” said Mittertreiner.

The climate emergency

The climate action movement, highlighted in recent weeks by the global climate strikes started by activist Greta Thunberg, has brought the climate crisis to the forefront of world consciousness. For many UBC students, the urgency of the climate crisis has also made the next federal election feel much more important.

“[Whoever] is in the power for the next four years, that’s over a third of the 11 years that we have to cut our emissions by half … So whatever they’re doing the next four years, that really determines a lot of how we go in the fight against climate change,” said Mittertreiner.

For Canada, the prospect of climate change is dire. Parts of the country are predicted to warm at twice the global rate, with the increase in temperature likely to cause severe downpours and flooding. To new and returning UBC students, landing in Vancouver in September often means watching BC’s forest fire smoke roll across the sky as rising atmospheric temperatures create conditions for even more severe forest fires in the province and across Canada.

For Tara Cashen, co-president of the student-run sustainability organization Common Energy, voting goes hand-in-hand with the other, more individual choices that people make to combat the climate crisis.

People tend to focus on their own consumption and waste, and it can be easy for people to feel as though their individual vote doesn’t matter, Cashen said. But voters can’t forget that the easiest way to make broad changes happen is through government.

“To isolate individual action from systemic change is the biggest mistake we’re making,” she said.

Others echoed Cashen’s sentiment, like Dr. Kathryn Harrison, another political science professor who specializes in climate policy.

“We need really broad change in our economy, in the way the whole society moves around. How we produce our food, what products we trade in, how our buildings are heated — we need it all,” said Harrison. “And that’s not going to be done by individual choice. It needs policies to make it happen.”

Canada in particular needs to show climate leadership. Its per capita emissions are among the highest in the world and, according to Harrison, Canada is “using more than our fair share” of the atmosphere. She stressed that those in developing countries look to wealthy, high-emission nations like Canada to show leadership, and that the world is watching the outcome of Canada’s carbon tax and whether it will survive the election.

['auto'] Maya Rodrigo-Abdi

In exercising their right to vote, young people can assert that this issue is one they care about, and one that politicians need to care about too.

“Youth are showing up for climate change … What we’re seeing isn’t good enough. We’re not seeing the politicians responding to the severity of the crisis on many fronts, and we just can’t settle for lukewarm policies that don’t get us anywhere,” said Gabby Doebeli, a fifth-year student and chair of the Social Justice Centre (SJC).

But to Doebeli, the most important issue in this election isn’t climate action — it’s climate justice.

“Solving climate change requires climate justice that addresses some of the underlying systems of oppression that inform climate change,” said Doebeli.

‘Passing off blame’

To Ishmam Bhuiyan, a second-year student and housing justice director at the SJC, housing is a perfect example of the intersectionality of the climate crisis, and he stressed that housing justice must be made part of any attempt to alleviate it.

“If we plan effectively, we reduce emissions. And that’s just because if we place workers near where they work, we’re reducing transportation emissions.” said Bhuiyan. “When we talk about changing our economy to fit the scale of the crisis that is climate change, what necessarily has to happen is retrofitting buildings … But the problem with that is when we retrofit buildings all across the country and change how we live, That’s a reason for evicting thousands and tens of thousands of low income people.

“It doesn’t matter if we reduce emissions if there are people who are still sleeping outside on our streets.”

Housing is especially important to Bhuiyan because he believes none of the federal parties are talking about it enough.

“The assumption is that cities take care of housing,” he said. “But [what] we’re seeing, on a municipal level, is the city says that their hands are tied because the federal government’s not helping them.

“Everybody’s passing off blame. And I think it’s time for us to pin it down on someone.”

Housing and affordability are also important to the large contingent of UBC graduate students who are eligible voters, along with issues like public transportation and mental health support, said the Graduate Student Society’s VP External Sara Hossein.

“Affordability is the biggest problem [for graduate students] and can make the biggest difference between undergrad and graduate students.”

Hossein explained that unlike undergrads, grad students rely on stipends and scholarships from the university as their main form of income and support. Living costs are directly affected by these stipends because they have little opportunity to take on side jobs for extra money.

“For example, for the research-stream graduate students … you usually work 10 hours a day, [and] they can’t work outside the lab and the offices they’re working right now.”

Avoiding apathy

In most of Canada’s electoral areas, called ridings, voters will have at least three candidates on the ballot. Other than independents, these candidates will likely belong to one of the five major parties vying for government — Conservatives, Liberals, NDP, Greens and Bloc Québécois. How do constituents figure out who they want to vote for, particularly when they’re not compelled by any of the options available?

This question is a “perennial challenge” for Canadian elections within the first-past-the-post system, Harrison said. For some voters, a particular candidate losing may be more important than their first choice winning, but the difficulty of finding polling data for individual ridings makes it tricky to guess how this kind of strategic voting will eventually play out. Regardless, Harrison emphasized that shaming someone for how they decide to vote is unproductive.

['auto'] Maya Rodrigo-Abdi

“The votes belong to the voters, no one else gets to tell you what you need to do in terms of strategic voting or not.”

When it comes to voting, it’s easy to be apathetic, said Johnston. Turnout among Canadian voters ages 18 to 24 had been steadily declining until 2015, which saw the highest voter turnout since 1993. Elections Canada data shows that 57 per cent of that same age group cast a ballot in 2015, a major increase from the 39 per cent who voted in 2011.

“This election will have a lot more impact on you than you will have on this election — it’s a collective good,” said Johnston. “Whoever wins, you will get the result of that victory, whether you voted for the winner, you voted for the loser, or you voted for someone else, or you didn’t vote at all — you’re going to get that result.”

So why should young voters put in the time and effort to learn about the election and get to the polls amongst all their other responsibilities?

“You have to tell people, ‘What if everybody thought that way?’” said Johnston. “You have to overcome that and think in terms of yourself [and] with other people like yourself. Whose vote will count if you get out and cast it collectively.”

“A very conventional answer to this question [of why young people should vote now] is that the future will exclusively affect us. But I think that’s irrelevant. The biggest factor here is that we’re poor,” said Bhuiyan.

This generation of young people is much worse off than previous generations, he stressed. Wealth inequality — combined with the climate crisis — means that they’re going to struggle for the rest of their lives.

“We’re doing ourselves a disservice if we’re not plugged in.”

No excuses

At UBC, voting has been made easy. The AMS is running a UBC Votes 2019 campaign that includes advanced voting in the Great Hall and allows students to vote in any riding across the country, October 5–9. The society is also lobbying federal parties on student issues like affordability and support for Indigenous students.

Read The Ubyssey’s election coverage for profiles of the Vancouver Quadra candidates, explainers on issues concerning students and more information on how to vote. Listen to a podcast, discuss with your loved ones and, above all, remember that your vote does count.

Make voting social, Harrison suggested. Get a group of friends together to go vote and make it a commitment to each other, because voting is an act of community.

It’s also an exercise of faith — faith in the collective good, said Johnston, and the ability to make your voice heard.

“I really am hoping for justice in this government,” said Mittertreiner. “There’s been so much injustice towards Indigenous people, towards people in poverty, towards the climate, towards the environment. It’s really time that we all get what we deserve. In terms of reparations, in terms of equality, in terms of rights.”

— with files from Andrew Ha and Henry Anderson