Stop shaming young people to vote

Ultimately, the decision to vote should be a personal one

The other night I participated in an organized group discussion about the youth vote and upcoming federal election. (Doesn’t that sound riveting?) As part of the event, participants were asked to indicate to the group if they plan on voting, and if so, who they plan on supporting. Among the crowd was a group of brave souls who, feeling disengaged and disenfranchised, declared their intention to stay home on May 2. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “ZOMG, someone, save them!” “Others are dying for this TYPE OF DEMOCRACY!”

I was beginning to believe “Not Voting” was some sort of communicable disease by the way these individuals were avoided that night. It was mostly leers and whispers until the microphone made its way around and self-appointed democracy-advocates made their impassioned pleas to the misguided. “You’re ruining it for everyone!” they said. “Don’t be politically lazy!” “We are the future!” “Gaaahh!”

Of course, the vomit was slowly rising in my throat by that point. Most upsetting was that I generally agreed with the voting advocates (minus the starry-eyed optimism). I think young people should vote, especially since it’s clear politicians won’t pay greater attention to the concerns of youth until they’re convinced they can rely on their votes. Young people can make the change by voting. I was incredibly dismayed, however, by the tone of the individuals who chose to unleash verbal attacks on the non-voters. They were convinced that the deliberate choice to refrain from voting was a disgraceful one and something certainly worthy of indignation.

It’s not surprising that this election has given rise to that sort of sentiment. Over the past few weeks, young people have been the target of pundit pleas, messages from TV personalities, and campus pressure to participate in vote mobs. And while the messages have largely been positive–encouraging youth to exercise their democratic right to cast a ballot—the latent effect has been to make a taboo of the equally democratic right to not cast a ballot. It seems focus on getting young people out to the polls has demonized the decision to stay home.

The reasons cited for choosing not to vote are usually the same among young people. They either don’t care enough to vote, they feel they aren’t well informed enough to vote, or else are so disenfranchised and dismayed by the system that they don’t want to validate the process by voting. I personally feel each reason to be insufficient (though I can sympathize with the last one, especially since there is no constructive way to express discontent with the system since spoiling a federal ballot is illegal in Canada, for some reason), but each individual has the freedom to decide if she or he wants to participate. Voting is a right, not an obligation, just as, say, the freedom of peaceful assembly is a right, not an obligation. Just because that right exists doesn’t mean we are compelled to make use of it.

The shamers will also soon come to realize that one of the worst ways to get people on your side, especially in politics, is with guilt and pressure. (Ask your friends about their blocked Twitter lists if you need any further confirmation.) Perhaps it is true that young people who choose to stay home will be “ruining it for the rest of us” by lowering turnout numbers for the youth demographic, but reminding them of that will not further anyone’s cause. Nor will a vote mob dance party–sorry to interrupt the glee. The outraged can try to explain to committed non-voters why they should vote (as opposed to explaining why they are terrible people for choosing not to), or else, move to Australia and enjoy life. In Canada, the decision to vote is a personal choice and one that should be respected, even if we don’t like it.

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