Are ‘rock the student vote’ campaigns worth it?

If university students are already voting, maybe efforts to get them to the polls could be directed elsewhere

As with every vote, student politicians across the country are campaigning to get students out to the polls for the upcoming federal election.

The Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA), for example, launched to provide information on how to vote and political party platforms, along with a blog and links to Twitter feeds for each party.

“The main impetus for the site was to put something out there that had information resources,” CASA director Zachary Dayler told the Canadian University Press.

Individual student unions are also taking it upon themselves to engage their members, such as the University of Alberta Students’ Union (UASU)which is setting up an election page on their main website, and is organizing a forum for candidates in the Edmonton-Strathcona riding.

One student at the University of Saskatchewan suggested using the university’s online social media tool PAWS to solve the so-called student voter apathy problem.

“If we could show that students are voting in large numbers at the U of S, maybe we could secure funding from various levels of government,” Matthew Eldstrom told campus newspaper The Sheaf, who also explained that he’d contact the executive of the University of Saskatchewan Student’s Union, along with several students in the university’s political science and computer science departments to put his plan into action.

And we’ve all heard of the ‘vote mobs’ organized by student leaders at several universities across the country, such as the University of Guelph, where hundreds of students have gathered at party rallies to show they are far from apathetic about the election.

I’m all for making students more aware of issues in the federal election, and no one could argue that getting more young people casting their ballots would be a bad thing. But the problem with these campaigns is that students are arguably more educated and engaged than the general population when it comes to politics, and they may already be flocking to the polls as it is.

The average citizen isn’t gleefully signing up for classes in political science, and they typically aren’t privy to politicians campaigning or holding presentations at their place of work. Students are exposed to these kinds of political engagement regularly (take Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff’s cross-campus tour last year, for example). They also have political student groups on campus clamouring for their attention that they can easily get involved in.

A 2003 Electoral Insight study headed by McGill professor Elizabeth Gidengil exploring voter participation found that while voter turnout had steadily declined amongst voters born after 1970, when taking education into account “it is a serious misconception to suppose that it is the highly educated young who are failing to turn up at the polls. On the contrary, the more education young people have, the more likely they are to vote.”

The same authors penned an additional paper that further broke up predicted voter turnout by education which looked at voter decline between 1968 and 2000. The study found that voter turnout  amongst youth, age 20, with less education was predicted to be 29 per cent, 43 per cent amongst youth with a medium level of education, and 58 per cent amongst youth with a high level of education.

As Carson has pointed out, though these studies may be dated, voting trends haven’t swayed substantially over the past decade. So it’s very likely that these findings still apply to students eligible to vote on May 2.

What’s worrisome is that the focus on raising student voter turnout may be hurting efforts to engage youth who aren’t in post-secondary education. Jared Wesley, an assistant professor of political studies at the University of Manitoba, pointed out that equating student politics with youth politics could depress the voter turnout amongst non-students, considering student movements usually focus on the issue of tuition, and that too often politicians solely campaign on campuses to engage young people.

“Politicians are focused on middle-class families when it’s the lower-class families that are starting out, that don’t have an education that are not likely to vote,” he told the Canadian University Press. “I realize it’s easy to campaign on campus, but it’s not solving the larger issue.”

In a country with one of the highest post secondary education participation rates in the world, it’s easy to focus on students when trying to increase youth voter turnout. Yet let’s not forget that not everyone decides to attend university, and their vote counts just as much as any student’s. It’s their issues that are often overshadowed by the concerns of their peers enrolled in university.

But it’s obviously not the job of student interest groups or universities to address this problem. Their role is to make sure students are informed of the issues in the election affecting them, and they do a pretty good job of it. It’s politicians and policy makers who should be expanding the dialogue on youth issues off campus, and realizing the diverse make-up of the youth populace.

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