I tried voting yesterday in a local by-election (advanced poll). Sadly, I was unsuccessful.
First, I went to the Elections Canada by-election website. Guess which link tells you the election dates and locations? (hint: it is under the “and more…” link).
Unsurprisingly, the advanced poll was at a local church (more on that below) that was a half kilometer away from all the local bus routes. But the kicker was that I’d failed to notice the opening time of the polling station, so upon my arrival at 10:15 (I was hoping to arrive after the prework rush) I discovered that the polling booth wouldn’t open until 11:00am. With a 11am meeting scheduled downtown, my day of democracy was over. Was my negative experience Elections Canada’s fault? Absolutely not. I’d failed to notice the polling start time. But it did make me wonder about the whole process of voting, and why young people seem to avoid it.
A lot of noise has been made about the dropping voting rates among young people. Some (usually young people) argue politicians and political parties don’t advocate agendas or messages that appeal to young people. Others (usually their parents) claim our schools fail to teach enough civics and that society doesn’t imbue the behaviour in our young people. And finally, still other people (usually their grandparents) believe young people are simply hedonistic, self-centered, and lazy (and likely undeserving of the right to vote anyway).
I agree that many young people don’t vote because they fail to see how a single vote in a the political process will have any impact, particularly when the choices are, quite frankly, not that appealing. That said, the rise of Barack Obama clearly points to the fact that young people will mobilize themselves and vote in fairly large numbers if stirred.
There is however another, important reason why I believe young people don’t vote. Some call it laziness. I prefer the term convenience.
The simple fact is that the voting infrastructure we use today was essentially built by and for our grandparents. Since then, it has been barely tweaked. Try this out. In the 1960’s if you were a “young person” (e.g 20-30) you were almost certainly married and had two kids. (60’s avg marriage age was 24 for men, 20 for women). Thinking in terms of the 1950s and 60s: What were the 3 institutions you probably visited on a daily basis? How about A) the local community centre, B) the local school, and C) the local church.
Now, if you are between the age of 25 and 35 or under, name me three institutions you probably haven’t visited in over a decade.
Do young people not vote because they are lazy? Maybe. But they also didn’t have a voting system designed around them like their grandparents did. Why aren’t their voting booths in subway stations? The lobbies of office towers? The local shopping mall? How about Starbucks? Somewhere, anywhere, where people actually congregate. Heaven forbid that voting booths be where the voters are.
I don’t claim that such a move would magically solve the youth voting issue. But imagine if such a move increased young voting turnout by even 5%. Suddenly the youth demographic would be the fastest growing segment of voters and you can bet your bottom dollar that political parties would suddenly pay a lot more attention. That in turn might create a virtuous circle: with more parties appealing to them, more young people might turn out to vote.
It’s not magic bullet – but since we can’t make political parties appeal to young people, let’s fix what we can control. Besides, it wouldn’t hurt to have a voting infrastructure designed by and for the 21st century, would it?