Encourage better voter turnout early

Get to voters while they’re young

Preventing shoddy voter turn out should start as early as elementary school

Darryl Dyck/CP

Darryl Dyck/CP

In 2006, not long after Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith came out in theatres, my high school held a mock federal election in advance of the real one. The race was between incumbent Liberal prime minister Paul Martin and stealthy Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, a man who resembled a young Emperor Palpatine. Eight years have passed since Mock Vote 2006 (which, I should note, Harper lost) and the Prime Minister’s rule is as constant as the Force. So too, it turns out, is low voter turnout among young adults, the product, some researchers argue, of political illiteracy and ambivalence. A deciding factor in the mock votes of my peers wasn’t the platform behind a particular candidate, but the placard: “I picked the guy on my parents’ lawn,” was an explanation heard often at exit polls across the cafeteria.

Only 43.8 per cent of Canadians aged 18 to 24 voted in the federal election in 2006, followed by 37.4 per cent in 2008, and 38.8 in 2011. Now another election is upon us in Ontario. Given that voter turnout is even worse in provincial elections than federal—a depressing 49 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot in the last race—we’ll be lucky if we see so much as an infinitesimal Gen Y turnout on June 12. While we’re guaranteed to find out who will run Canada’s largest province for the next four years, we’ll never know who should run it in the minds of the demographic that will shape our future. Those odds aren’t getting any better.

Jane Hilderman, research manager and acting director at Samara Canada, a non-partisan organization working to improve political participation in the country, says that since the late ’70s Canada has “seen a decline in overall voter turnout driven by young people not voting at the same rate as their parents and grandparents.” Hilderman says theories abound, with researchers citing everything from “a decline of deference toward authority and the rise of individualism” to textbook lamentations about “Generation Me” (i.e. the notion that Millennials are too busy instagramming photos of their mediocre breakfasts to make it to the polls). Whatever the reason, says Hilderman, “Turnout will continue its slow decline unless something happens to reverse the trend.”

Given this reality, you’d assume that building civic literacy and preventing shoddy poll attendance would start as early as possible, say, in elementary school, when children are busy learning their times tables and the geography of Canada. While they’re busy with memory work, why not learn how many seats there are in the House of Commons? Ontario is the only province with a government-mandated civics program in Grade 10—one that is nine weeks long and was, until it was revised last year, riddled with erroneous, outdated information.

Nathan Tidridge, the history teacher who brought this issue to the media’s attention, is still displeased with the curriculum, namely its overreliance on feel-good concepts and disregard for specifics. “Citizenship is very important and diversity is one of the foundations of Canada,” Tidridge said last year on TVO’s The Agenda, “but we need to also instill in our students the fundamentals so that they see how our democracy works.” It would be good if they could remember how it works too.

Apply Ontario’s current civics education model to any other skill set students learn in school, and it’s immediately apparent why the program hasn’t affected voter turnout, or literacy. Imagine for a moment that the education minister in your province or territory suddenly announced, beginning tomorrow, that Canadian kids will no longer need to take math and French in elementary school on a routine basis; instead, they’ll only need to take it once, for a few weeks. Parents would revolt, obviously, because nobody would learn how to count, or speak a word of French beyond oui.

School boards across the country have been more than willing to champion new and improved financial literacy and computer coding classes to better prepare students for a new world. A nod to actual civic literacy in Ontario, and elsewhere, is long overdue in a democratic country.

There’s also a less obvious, but equally important, fairness precedent for a more comprehensive civics program. Research shows that families who discuss politics around the dinner table are more likely to vote, but not all families do discuss politics, just as not all family homes are filled with love, laughter, and in-depth discussions about Shakespeare and the theory of evolution. The difference is that a 12-year-old who comes from a home with parents ignorant about or disinterested in Shakespeare and evolution will be able to get his fix at school. He will read poetry and dissect frogs; his teachers will facilitate the intellectual conversations his parents can’t or won’t have with him. But if he wants to talk politics—Wynne vs. Hudak, Horwath vs. Schreiner? Well, there’s always the placard on the neighbour’s lawn.


Get to voters while they’re young

  1. Agreed. Everyone should have a complete course in civics before they’re allowed to leave school. You have to know how the system works….whether you want to strengthen it, or change it.

    Also the voting age should be returned to 21. It should be a sign of adulthood….something young people look forward to.

    The major problem in voting for young people is the moving around they do. Making sure they’re registered and in the right place so voting isn’t mission impossible.

    If you want young people to vote….give them something to vote on that matters to THEM.

    Separatism, abortion, prostitution, HOC decorum, the Senate, party scandals….old and boring….reruns……….zzzzzzzzzz

    • If a young adult can go to war at age 18, it seems unjust that they cannot cast a vote for or against a government that would send them to the battlefield until they are age 21.

      • Then why are we sending 18 year olds to war?

        • We only send volunteers, Emily,

          If they choose to put on the uniform, it comes with the expectation that they may need to deploy.

  2. If you want to get rid of “shoddy voter turn out”, then get rid of Charles Adler and Ezra Levant.

    • Get rid of freedom of speech? How will that increase voter turnout?

  3. “families who discuss politics around the dinner table are more likely to vote…”
    When was the last time any family actually sat together around a dinner table, much less discuss politics? 1985?

  4. I resent the notion that millennials are too busy instagramming to go vote. I voted on Friday… and then instagrammed a lovely shot of the VOTE HERE sign :)

  5. If you want people to vote, you need to show them why it is important to their lives. Teaching civics is important, but we should also have mandatory lessons in economics, finance.

    Of course this will never happen, as teaching young people about how to manage money; what debt means, and how taxes affect the joblessness rate……..will mean more conservative voters in teh future.

    Can’t allow that now can we?

  6. Want a better turn out? Give us better options than lobby bought statism taxing us more while giving us less and less.

    Not one option on my ballot for less uncommon good bailouts, buddy deals, inflated contracts, union and auto bailouts. This isn’t democracy, its the ruse of democracy. No vote to prevent unscrupulous politicians from adding debt to kids and unborn — and they think this is somehow ethical to feed todays greed with tomorrows debt futures.

    Fact is none of the parties have my values of ethics, fairness, morals and fiscal sense. We even have no recall, no referendums, no recourse as we really elect proxies that do not represent us, they represent illusions for us to get our money to pander, bailout, buddy deals and union statism.

    You have to earn $1,400,000 to pay $700,000 in taxes, $300,000 in fair interest, to buy a $400,000 home that is $200,000 in labour, fees, tariffs and other taxes to build the $200,000 debt-tax out home.

    Mexican earns $200,000 to pay $40,000 in taxes, $40,000 in interest to buy a $120,000 home. (Also pays a whole lost less in city/utility/education taxes too).

    So in above, who is your slave master? Statism tax greed….we have no money for each others jobs, too busy supporting governemtn kids. Mexican isn’t as tax inflated, so their costs are less and our wages are uncompetitive, facilitates the job losses. But even media will not take this viewpoint as it isn’t the statism illusion lines.

    We dont’ teach real economics in Canada….and why Canda is a failing nation losing world market share. In terms of the larger USD currency and Yuan we are failing. We were a $1.8 trillion USD GDP economy last year, but now are a $1.65 trillion USD economy this year, and again media covers it up as it isn’t politically correct/corrupt enough.

    Fact is there is no one good to vote for. I am a conservative in Calgary SW, and my last vote I wrote:

    [ x ] I need better choices.

    So why waste the gas when the only possible outcome is more government and less for the people who make Canada work?

  7. Is there any evidence to suggest that jurisdictions that have higher voter turnout, for example Australia, consistently have better leaders?

    • Australian voters are forced to vote. That doesn’t mean they have more informed voters. They’re simply doing it to avoid getting fined. Apples and oranges. I’d use a different example, if I could think of a western country with a high voter turnout, but I can’t…

  8. My daughter is 19. In April she received a letter from Elections Canada verifying her personal information and asking her to sign the form and send it back so she can become a registered voter. It confirmed that she was a resident of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. A few weeks ago she did not receive her voter registration card for the Provincial election. It took 3 phone calls (to Elections Canada who directed her to Elections Ontario who directed her to the local elections office in our riding) over 35 minutes (in one case on hold for 18 minutes) to find out that Elections Canada does not share their information with the Provincial or Municipal office. Elections Ontario said she must bring one piece of photo ID (like a driver’s license) and 1 proof of residence (like a bill). There are no bills in her name at our residence. When she called the local riding office they said all she needs is a photo ID with her address on it. Thankfully she has a driver’s license. What happens to those who do not? This was ridiculous. She must now register in our riding to vote Provincially. Oh, and she will have to do this all over again in order to vote in the Municipal election this fall. If we want younger voters to vote, we should make it easy for them. One registration with Elections Canada should ensure that all young voters get their registration card in the mail so they feel excited and encouraged to vote.