Much like during the run up to federal election that happened in May, campaigns to encourage youth to vote in the five provincial elections happening this fall are popping up everywhere students look.
The question is—will they work?
Elections Canada has not yet released details on voter turnout by age from the 2011 federal election, but overall voter turnout was up just two per cent in 2011 over 2008 (from 59.1 per cent to 61.4 per cent). In other words, it looks like the rock-the-student-vote campaigns failed to get the big results they aimed for. The 2008 turnout for youth aged 18 to 24, by the way, was 37 per cent.
The failure to boost turnout much in May hasn’t stopped political scientists from creating campaigns like U2011: Understanding the Manitoba Election project. U2011 has tried to spur interest with several events that connect the public with experts on issues including women in politics and politics in Northern Manitoba. The team also created VoteAnyWay, a social media campaign aimed at 18- to 24-year-olds, which enlisted several Manitoban celebrities for video pleas asking youth to vote.
But will cringe-inducing PSAs like this riviting “poem” by Gail Asper really motivate youth? “Even if you got small pox / you can still go check that box / If politics gets you dejected / maybe you should get elected,” Asper enthusiastically rapped on the steps of the Manitoba legislature. She deserves credit for having courted 2,500 views on YouTube. But other celebrities’ videos, like Fred Penner and Rosanna Dearchild’s joint plea, haven’t exactly gone viral with only a couple hundred views.
Bartley Kives, a reporter with the Winnipeg Free Press, offers a more convincing argument as part of the paper’s Democracy Project: “People all over the world do not have the opportunity to vote because they live under dystopic, tyrannical regimes. They are dying attempting to vote. Therefore, if you do not exercise your right to vote, you’re kind of spitting in their faces and telling them they’re dying for no reason,” says Kives in his video. He admits he was inspired by Rick Mercer, whose video during the federal election got 58,000 views. But few youth could have heard Kives’ video. So far a grand total of zero people have shared his video on Twitter, Google+ or Facebook.
Nationwide, the Vote With Me project similarly proves that making your message available for sharing on social media doesn’t mean people will necessarily bother to share it. The campaign asks voters to not only get themselves to polling stations, but to bring one friend—and to take the Vote With Me Pledge promising they’ll drag that person along. As of publication, only two Manitobans, one voter from P.E.I., one from Nfld. and 15 from Ontario had taken the pledge.
Student Vote tries to interest elementary, middle and secondary students across the country in the electoral process. Too bad they haven’t reached voting age yet.
And no round of campaigns could be complete without a flurry of student advocacy groups making videos. The Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance created this vote rap video, which may rival Gail Asper’s for artistic merit, though it has an even smaller viewership so far.
So, why aren’t students paying attention?
Jennifer Black, a University of Manitoba arts student, thinks voting is important and that’s why she took part in a Vote Mob at the University of Winnipeg in the spring. But even she doubts the effectiveness of such campaigns. The vote mob got a lot of attention from the media, but she felt it was preaching to the converted. “We all got together and made each other feel good that we’re voting,” she said. But shouting “just go vote” doesn’t really motivate anyone, she says.
When student unions do create more specific campaigns, it’s almost always about tuition fees, says Black. “Everyone has to pay tuition fees, generations before us had to pay tuition fees,” she explains. “It’s a little patronizing—it’s as if we don’t have the capacity to grasp larger issues.”
She’s not the only one who feels that way. A survey by the Historica Dominion Institute ahead of the federal election found that education is surprisingly low on the list of students’ political priorities.
Ethan Cabel, a fourth-year political science student at the University of Winnipeg, is similarly cynical about get-out-the-vote efforts. He also believes that student-led campaigns fail to enumerate the many issues students should care about. Besides, he says, if students don’t know the issues, do we really want them to vote? So far, the get-out-the-vote campaigners haven’t convinced Cabel.
But, as we’ve seen this fall, that doesn’t mean they won’t keep trying.