Electoral Insight – Persons with Disabilities and Elections
National Forum on Youth Voting
On October 30–31, 2003, Elections Canada held a National Forum on Youth Voting in Calgary, Alberta. This event, the first of its kind in Canada, brought together youth leaders and leading Canadians from a number of other sectors to focus on concrete measures to encourage youth electoral participation. In total, 48 participants took part; of these, 27 were youth representatives.
The Forum included presentations by representatives of youth organizations, small group and plenary discussions, questions and commentary. With the exception of the small group discussions, all parts of the event were recorded for television and broadcast by Canada's Political Channel (CPAC) on November 28, 2003.
The Forum was launched on the evening of October 30 with welcoming remarks by co-chairs Dominique Anglade, Senior Manager at Nortel Networks, and Phillip Haid, Senior Account Director and Director of Business Development for Manifest Communications. Ms. Anglade urged participants to become engaged and to look for ways to convince the greatest number of young Canadians to vote. Mr. Haid said he hoped that, with the support of all the participants, this event would "galvanize even more activity over the coming months and years."
The Forum was co-chaired by Dominique Anglade, Senior Manager at Nortel Networks, and Phillip Haid, Senior Account Director at Manifest Communications.
The Chief Electoral Officer of Canada, Jean-Pierre Kingsley, followed with his keynote address. He congratulated participants on their commitment to strengthening youth civic engagement in this country and said that he looked forward to hearing their ideas for ways to encourage youth to exercise their democratic rights. "The future of democracy belongs to young people," Mr. Kingsley stated. "I hope you will see this National Forum not as an end in itself, but as a starting point for revitalizing Canada's democratic process." He added that concerted efforts must be made for both the next election and the longer term, but that Elections Canada could not address the problem single-handedly: "We need others to become involved as part of a shared effort: political parties, civil society organizations, business and the media."
On October 31, a number of youth organizations made presentations about their activities to encourage youth involvement.
Paul Green, director of Blockheadz, described the activities of his organization's Rush the Vote concert series. Through free musical events, Rush the Vote aims "to increase voter turnout and political awareness among Canadian youth (18–30) through art, music and education." He provided a video presentation on Rush the Vote concerts in Ottawa and Toronto and told how they were effective in connecting with youth and explaining to them how government affects young people, how the electoral process works and how youth can get engaged.
Julianna Torjek and Tamar Eylon told the participants about their work with the City of Vancouver's Youth Outreach Team (YOT) as a part of the city's Civic Youth Strategy (CYS). The CYS is a policy that was endorsed by Vancouver's city council in 1995 to ensure that: youth have a place in the city; youth have a strong voice in decision making; youth are seen as a resource in and to the city; and that there be a strong support base for youth in the city. Tamar and Julianna talked about the role of poverty and inequality as factors that discourage electoral involvement and went on to describe how the YOT's programs and initiatives are intended "to speak to young people's sense of self, identity and community." In their words: "low voter turnout ... can only be addressed by a coordinated and concerted effort to restore policies and programs that promote equality."
At the National Forum on Youth Voting, Chief Electoral Officer of Canada Jean-Pierre Kingsley outlined the initiatives Elections Canada was taking to encourage electoral participation among young people. Mr. Kingsley also proposed the creation of a national committee or council to encourage voting by young Canadians.
Carle Bernier-Genest, President of the Forum jeunesse de l'île de Montréal, described his organization's activities to promote youth civic engagement and voting. These include: disseminating information during elections, promoting youth candidates, offering election simulation activities in schools and offering activities to promote and support citizen involvement via their Web site, training, workshops, guides and conferences. Mr. Bernier-Genest stressed the importance of "politicizing youth" in order to increase their voting rates. He encouraged greater citizenship education through lessons in civics and exploring the values of mutual co-operation and democratic institutions.
Kids Voting Canada founder, Taylor Gunn, gave the participants an overview of his organization's Student Vote 2003 educational initiative during the recent Ontario provincial election. As well as providing youth election-education activities and opportunities to talk with candidates, Student Vote 2003 featured an election simulation module. Mr. Gunn explained that on election day, some 350,000 students from 800 schools across Ontario voted in their schools for candidates in their local riding. The ballots were collected and tabulated and the results were presented live on national television.
Tom Axworthy, Executive Director of Historica Foundation, underlined the importance of civic engagement and education. He noted the need for public policies to engage youth and urged political parties to play a greater role in this effort. He described Historica's YouthLinks initiative – a Web-based program linking 400 schools in Canada and around the world – to foster discussions on democracy and civic engagement.
Roger Gibbins, President of the Canada West Foundation, gave the luncheon address on October 31. He used the "canary in the mine shaft" analogy to explain what he saw as the factors underlining the recent decline in youth electoral participation. He said that "Canadian youth, through their lack of participation, are sending a message about the health of Canadian democratic politics." He noted that the Canadian political culture carries a strong and persistent message that elections don't count for much, that Parliament is irrelevant, and that the courts are now the primary policy-makers. He suggested that the lack of a competitive party system and distortions in the electoral system could also explain low rates of electoral participation. In his view, while efforts to encourage youth to participate are worthwhile, there is a need for a wider debate on ways to revitalize Canadian democracy.
The importance of youth civic engagement was stressed by Tom Axworthy, Executive Director of Historica Foundation, who urged political parties to become more involved in this activity.
Over the two-day event, participants took part in two sets of small group discussions. Rapporteurs from each discussion group reported back to plenary sessions on proposals to address the decline in youth voting for both the next federal election and the longer term.
The following provides a summary of participants' proposals and suggestions. The ordering of the various points is not intended as an indication of the level of support within the Forum as a whole.
Possible actions for Elections Canada and others to improve youth voter turnout at the next federal election
Improve access to the vote
- Bring the election to youth by engaging them where they are – youth groups; universities; sports organizations; coffee shops; concerts; Friendship Centres
- Polling stations: at youth centres; universities; cinemas
- Hire more youth as election day workers
- Explain and encourage greater use of the mail-in ballot and advance voting
- Use of information and communication technologies
Improve voter registration
- Simplify the identification requirements for election day registration
- Flyers that provide information on registration and elections (possibly slipped into shopping bags)
- Use of information and communication technologies
Elections Canada's advertising campaigns
- No guilt trips in advertising campaigns: be honest and straightforward; passionate not passive
- Advertising blitz during last two days of election
- Encourage youth to contact Elections Canada for more information: Web site or enquiries line
- Use youth-oriented newspapers and magazines to publish information
- Fund youth organizations to organize get-out-the-vote campaigns for young people
- Work with several advertising agencies to create a variety of concepts: encourage creativity and diversity
- Invite well-known personalities and role models to promote the vote
Possible ongoing actions to encourage youth voter turnout
- Start in lower grades
- More training for those who teach civics
- Work with the provincial ministries of education to improve civics curriculum
- Elections Canada should provide election information and sample materials
- Stress the historical importance of the right to vote (reference Elections Canada's A History of the Vote in Canada)
- Support election simulations to develop the "habit of participation" – e.g. Kids Voting Canada
- Involve local leaders, educators and politicians
- Personalize issues – make them real for students
Research and policy
- Feasibility of e-voting
- Effects of lowering the voting age
- More research into the decline of youth engagement
Make voting day special
- Consider declaring election day a national holiday
- Concerts following the close of polls
Paul Green (Director of Blockheadz) tells the National Forum on Youth Voting about his organization's Rush the Vote concert series to encourage voter turnout and political awareness among Canadian youth through musical events. Pictured also are Forum presenters (left to right) – Carle Bernier-Genest (President of the Forum jeunesse de l'île de Montréal), Tamar Eylon and Julianna Torjek (City of Vancouver's Civic Youth Strategy) – and the co-chairs of the event.
- Outreach between elections is important
- "Take it local" – school-based activities; engage local leaders (not just politicians); encourage local co-operation and involvement of youth on governing bodies of various organizations
- Work with spokespersons youth respect – e.g. musicians, athletes
- Promote discussions of relevant issues
- Take risks and be innovative
- Take advantage of successfully tested programs that connect with youth
Greater use of technology
- Improve Elections Canada's Web site
- Create more links between Elections Canada's Web site and other relevant youth sites
- Text messages from Elections Canada to promote voting and registration
- Chat rooms to discuss election issues
- Advertise between elections
- Change the message: instead of talking about "duty" or "responsibility", emphasize political weight of young people as a group – e.g. a "way of taking power into your hands" and exerting influence
- Multimedia approach including new technologies – maximize the potential of Elections Canada's Web site
New national committee or council to promote youth voting
- Would need national leadership
- Should be an NGO at arm's length from government
- Could be a good place to promote and "bring together" best practices and research
- Could coordinate youth voter education and youth outreach programs
- Greater coordination among existing organizations may be an alternative to the creation of a new body
Aboriginal youth participation
- Have more polling stations situated on reserves
- Utilize Friendship Centres to disseminate information
- Utilize Aboriginal broadcast networks and publications to promote the vote
- Benefit from National Aboriginal Day, powwows and assembly meetings to reach a greater number of Aboriginal youth – e.g. information booths
- Link Elections Canada's Web site with Aboriginal Web sites
- Encourage Aboriginal youth to run as candidates and work as election officers
- Encourage and utilize connections between elders and youth
- Engage Aboriginal organizations to develop projects to get-out-the-vote
- Be sensitive to Aboriginal customs
Roles of various actors
- Political parties must make a greater effort to reach out to young voters: use youth caucuses as outreach tools; allocate part of the annual public funding they will receive as a result of Bill C-24 to fund youth education activities
- Parliament should allocate time to debate youth issues
- Leadership debates should address youth issues
- Encourage town hall meetings with candidates that target a younger audience
- Foundations and businesses should play a greater role
Other major issues
- Lack of trust in political leaders
- Perception that votes are wasted under current electoral system
- Potential of direct democracy measures to encourage engagement
In his closing remarks, the Chief Electoral Officer stressed that the participation of everyone in this effort counts. Mr. Kingsley noted the need to reach out to youth in their milieu and by their own means at all times: before, during and after an election. He indicated that the establishment of a national committee or council would be considered for the longer term. He assured the audience that Elections Canada would pursue participants' proposals and suggestions, and that he would share widely the messages he had heard, including with Parliament.
Main Messages from Participants
In addition to the specific suggestions and proposals put forward, a number of broader lessons, for both election and inter-election periods, were drawn from the National Forum on Youth Voting.
- "Come to us" – bring the election to where youth live, work, study; make voting accessible to youth – e.g. polling stations on university campuses. Must not neglect youth "on the street" or marginalized in other ways; must be mindful that not all youth are involved in post-secondary education.
- "Respect the diversity of youth" – recognize that youth are not a homogeneous group and that what works for one group of youth may not work for another; bear in mind rural/urban differences and technological barriers (e.g. lack of or limited access to the Internet).
- "Speak to youth in their own language" – don't be bureaucratic, or worse yet, condescending; use multiple media (including musical and other events) and spokespersons who have influence with youth, including leaders from their own organizations.
- "Work with organizations close to youth" – e.g. Friendship Centres are a good way to reach Aboriginal young people, particularly those who live in urban areas.
- "Don't just talk to youth at election time" – promote elections on an ongoing basis – e.g. through civics education and activities sponsored by community groups.
The opinions expressed are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada.