On Campus

Young voters should be key

Universities are ripe for mobilization because of how fast word can spread

Megan Leslie, member of Parliament for Halifax, claims that courting voters aged 18-30 is a waste of a politician’s time and that’s why most don’t engage the youth demographic. But those who do are seeing unprecedented success.

Lets take the recent win of Calgary mayor-elect Naheed Nenshi as an example. Nenshi went from polling at one per cent to winning the election with 40 per cent of the vote in two months. Mobilizing young voters is largely considered to be the catalyst for Nenshi’s triumph at the polls — not to mention the city’s dramatic spike in turnout.

While his stint as a professor at Calgary’s Mount Royal University certainly made him a household name in the post-secondary circle, Nenshi cultivated, rather than took advantage, of this connection, realizing that students were key to election gold. In fact, a week before the election, polls indicated that support for him in the 18- to 34-year-old bracket had jumped from nine to 43 per cent over the course of the campaign.

And Nenshi’s not the first successful politician to venture down this road less travelled. Just two years ago, Barack Obama was dubbed America’s first “social media” president.

“I saw a lot of parallels between his campaign and Obama’s campaign. He was mobilizing youth, which [Ric] McIver and [Barb] Higgins were not focusing on,” Ashif Murani, a Calgary lawyer, told the Globe and Mail on Oct. 19.

Rahaf Harfoush, a social media strategist who worked on Obama’s presidential campaign, summed up their success in a CBC interview on Dec. 5, 2008:

“It wasn’t about new media; it was about the fact that the campaign gave new media the opportunity to become an integrated part of the communications campaign of a political campaign.

“I think it helped us to access a lot of people by giving them to tools to organize, to create events, to connect with each others and giving them everything that they needed, so that when they went off-line they were fully equipped — be it canvassing to talk[ing] to their neighbours.

“[Through the site] they had talking points to pass onto their families, videos, events in their area that were happening, community outreach programs in their state. Everything that we did was to connect people, because it was a movement that was fundamentally about people.”

The Q&A portion of Leslie’s Oct. 19 presentation at Dalhousie University touched on some interesting realities of a political future without youth involvement.

“There should be some people in their 20s [in Parliament], because we pass bills on pension changes unanimously and we don’t talk about post-secondary education and unemployment. These issues are dead in the House of Commons,” Leslie said.

Following Leslie’s presentation, Emily Smith van Beek told the Dalhousie Gazette that political neglect of young people will eventually cause the system to crumble. She also added that universities are ripe for mobilization because of how fast word can spread.

While there’s still much to be said about promoting ideas students can get excited about it, it’s clear there is so much more politicians could be doing to engage young voters. And the ability to engage this Everest of demographics has valuable benefits for those who can successfully harness it.