Municipal politicians must engage young people this fall

student-vote-democracy-word-cloud1-1024x791By Robert Washburn

If young people had voted in greater numbers during the last federal election, Stephen Harper would not be running this country, according to a recent study.

Despite where one sits in the political spectrum, that is a shocking statement.

But according to pollster Nik Nanos, his research suggests this is absolutely true. Even more prophetic, he says the tone and content of the political debate at the time would have been very different, as well.

Working with the Institute for Research on Public Policy, Nanos examined what would have happened if a majority of young people had voted in the last federal election.

The problem lies with political parties, who target their message to older Canadians who are more likely to vote. The hard part is getting politicians to refocus and efforts are underway to change it.

The same holds true locally.

More than 1,500 schools signed up for the 2010 Student Vote Program, with 350,000 students voting for municipal candidates. This initiative is a wonderful introduction for young people from both public and secondary schools to be engaged. A national charitable group working with all levels of governments across Canada operates it.

Certainly, in the past, debates were held in high schools. And, municipal politicians have visited schools to speak with students, especially during Municipal Government Week.

But more must be done on a municipal level. And, with the upcoming fall election, it is a great opportunity to engage young voters 18 to 25-years old in an unprecedented way.

Cobourg led the way with online municipal voting during the last municipal election and is now being held out as a model. The town saved $35,000 and increased turn out to 47 per cent, up from 44 per cent in 2006.

Local elections feel as if they are run like those in the 19th century.

Ask any campaign manager and they will tell you elections are won or lost by boots on the ground and signs on lawns. If a candidate can knock on all the doors within the municipality, then they stand the best chance to win.

Messaging centres around issues focused on middle aged and senior voters – again, those most likely to turn out.

Politicians think because they have a website and a Facebook page, they are on the bleeding edge of democratic reform. Nothing could be further from the truth.

But with a struggling local economy, few full-time jobs, housing aimed at retirees (not young families) and little other than recreational opportunities for youth, it is thin gruel.

It is not only up to politicians to reach out to this age group. Municipal staff, especially the chief returning officers, should lead the strategy. If they could come together, it would be possible to collectively create a program to engage young people and young families.

Proposals could include voting booths in high schools for those who are eligible. Offer more opportunity for advance voting in high traffic locations like major retailers or famer’s markets. In other words, taking the voting booths to where people can go normally rather than just on Election Day.

Online voting should be widely adopted. Literature and advertising using both traditional and new media should be used to spread the participation message.

There is a great chance to change the outcome and the discussion about the future of Northumberland. The next four years are absolutely crucial. The next councils face daunting problems of economic renewal, development and sustaining infrastructure, along with services. Everybody’s voice should count for more, but young people especially.

First published: March 26, 2014

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