Will Youth Voter Turnout Decide the B.C. Election?

Only two weeks remain until Election Day in British Columbia and one of the biggest questions to be answered between now and then is how many millennials — voters between the ages of 18 and 34 — are going to get out to vote.

“In the past, we’ve had a really low youth voter turnout,” Raaj Chatterjee, a third-year engineering student at Simon Fraser University and organizer with Young Climate Voters B.C., told DeSmog Canada.

“I think that’s starting to change,” Chatterjee said.

“Especially with events in the States… Tweet: “A lot of people are waking up & being more involved or at least know what’s going on in politics” #bcpoli #bcelxn17a lot of people are waking up to being more involved or at least know what’s going on in politics.”

Federal Election Brought Major Bump to Youth Vote

During the 2015 federal election, there was a massive spike in the number of young people who headed to the ballot box: voter turnout for the age category of 18 to 24 spiked to 57.1 per cent in 2015, compared to only 38.8 per cent in 2011.

The difference? Liberal leader and now Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Young voters adored him: his approval rating among British Columbians aged 18 to 34 hit a stunning 71 per cent a day before the election, compared to 27 per cent for Stephen Harper.

Unfortunately for youth voter turnout advocates, there is no Trudeau-like figure in the upcoming B.C. election. In fact, millennial perception of the three major party leaders is extremely low: when asked by Insights West who would make the best premier, 17 per cent picked the NDP’s John Horgan, 14 per cent picked the Green Party’s Andrew Weaver and only seven per cent picked current premier and Liberal leader Christy Clark.

That leaves a full 62 per cent — or almost two-thirds — of young voters who aren’t sure. However, it’s that block of undecided voters that often end up determining the outcome of an election and 69 per cent of millennials feel it’s time for a change in government.

“It’s interesting: a lot of people plan to vote, but not a lot of people knew how they were going to vote yet,” says Emily Glass, organizer with Dogwood, referring to recent conversations with students. “I think it speaks to the reality of my generation, that we seem to be less partisan and the conversation looks different.”

Housing and Poverty Rank As Highest Issue For Young Voters

Millennials appear to be driven more by issues than by particular parties. In a recent Insights West poll, just over half of people in that age group pegged “housing / poverty / homelessness” as the most important issue facing British Columbia, compared to only 27 per cent of people over the age of 55.

The environment was the second most important issue to young voters (alongside healthcare). For older voters, environment ranked fifth, below other issues like education, the economy and accountability.

The big question is if young voters are going to show up on May 9. In 2013, only 39.8 per cent of people between the ages of 25 and 34 who were registered to vote actually voted. That’s compared to 74.2 per cent of registered voters between 65 and 74.

Over 50 Voter PopUps In Vancouver Attempt to Familiarize Voters With Process

One of the big inhibitors for young voters is their lack of permanent address and awareness of the registration process.

That’s where strategies like the Voter PopUp — designed by the nonpartisan democracy organization Samara — can come in.

According to John Beebe, Samara’s manager of outreach, the tool was developed during the federal election and is now being piloted in Metro Greater Vancouver in partnership with Elections B.C.

“It’s really a tool for community-based organizations to help engage their communities and demystify the voting process,” Beebe told DeSmog Canada. “It does that in a very simple but very powerful way by allowing community organizations to set up mock polling places: you have ballots, and ballot boxes, and voting screens and all the elements that you would experience when go into an actual polling place.”

The over 50 Voter PopUps in Vancouver don’t specifically target young voters, with locations including food banks, drop-in shelters and libraries.

But Beebe says that young people with higher education experience already participate in voting at a relatively high rate, whereas young people who have not attended post-secondary education at all or who may not have a stable income participate at a “very, very low rate.”

That fact is exacerbated by the failure of political parties to perform actual outreach to young people.

“They haven’t because they’re cynical and think young people don’t participate,” he says. “It’s this catch-22 situation, where they don’t think young people participate and don’t meaningfully reach out to young people, and then young people don’t participate because no-one’s meaningfully connecting with them.”

Millennial Focus on Issues Over Parties

Both Chatterjee and Glass say their organizations are deploying similar tactics, including helping young voters register and providing information about the voting process.

Other efforts have been used by the likes of the B.C. Federation of Students, which set a goal of 10,000 voting pledges from university students with a particular focus on “peer-to-peer persuasion.”

“Of course it looks different when there’s an election or certain campaign points, but we’re always organizing in neighbourhood teams,” Glass says. “I’ve found that is one of the most effective ways to reach youth. If they’re interested in an issue more so than partisan politics. Between elections, that’s the moment to have those conversations.”

As we’ve seen with recent elections, the undecided voters can make all of the difference. So come May 9, the result could come down to which party did the best job engaging with millennials — and how many young voters ultimately make it to the ballot box.

James Wilt is a freelance journalist based in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He holds a journalism degree from Mount Royal University in…

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