Watching the vote mob craze sweep across the country and my Facebook and Twitter streams during the federal election, I’ll admit I was looking forward to a boost to the traditionally low youth voter turnout May 2. Yet after the votes were tallied, the national voter turnout sat at just 61.4 per cent, a small increase from the 2008 federal election turnout of 59.1 per cent. Turnout has yet to be broken down between demographics, but given that the decline in overall voter turnout in federal elections over the last twenty years is largely due to declining youth turnout, if young voters had rushed to the polls it would have shown in the overall count.
It’s not terribly surprising that student-led vote mobs did little to drive people to the polls. Most studies on youth voter turnout have shown that students are already voting. It’s typically youth who aren’t attending university that don’t cast their ballots, as University of Manitoba political studies professor Jared Wesley has pointed out. Campus-based vote mobs and social media campaigns aimed at education issues did little to address this issue.
Further, though the youth vote movement perpetuated the idea that education issues are the focus of all young Canadians, in reality, education was probably the furthest from their minds during the election. A poll published by the Historica-Dominion Institute showed that youth aged 18-24 were most concerned about their standard of living and health care, not how high their tuition is. Organizers and supporters of vote mobs across the country stressed that the parties were not talking about youth issues, but were out of touch with what the general youth population actually cared about themselves.
It was also endlessly frustrating to watch the majority of the mainstream media gush over how exciting it was to see young people care about politics, but fail to explore whether those attending vote mobs and tweeting about the election would have voted anyway. What was published over and over again were a few photos and some video footage of students screaming about how excited they were to vote. I saw little commentary on who actually attended these rallies, and what practical impact the vote mobs would have come election day.
At the vote mob I attended at the University of Winnipeg, I recognized a lot of student union representatives, student journalists, and their friends. I don’t believe many of the approximately 100 people in attendance were average students who felt compelled to rally for youth engagement. Anyone who’s politically motivated enough to become a student politician and attend a rally will probably cast their ballot in a federal election before you encourage them to do it. What did these vote mobs accomplish if that’s who made up the majority of those who attended them?
It may be more difficult to reach out to the silent masses of youth who are uninterested in politics, but that’s what needed to be done to truly turn around youth voter apathy in this election.