The Apathy Epidemic

Tuesday, October 21, 2014


Written by Pegleess Barrios

National concern with voter apathy is hitting close to home as Guelph approaches the municipal elections. Canadians scored a “C” grade in Voter Turnout, ranking fourteenth out of 17 peer countries, with only 53.8per cent of adult Canadians voting in the last election. According to a survey by Statistics Canada, 27.7per cent of Canadians identified a lack of interest as the reason for their failure to do so, with the age group of 18-32 years old being the largest group to select this answer. Through this research, many have pointed to young voters as the main group failing to attend elections, and several campaigns have been started within Canada to help promote voting to youth.

One recent movement aimed to increase the voter turnout has been the implementation of online voting, so that eligible voters can participate from the comfort of their own home, office, etc. “We have to undertake something,” NDP Premier Greg Selinger publicly declared when hearing of the low voter turnout in Canada. “We’re going to take a look at e-voting.” Many campaigns targeted directly at students try to make voting appear cool, or make jokes or innuendos with the idea of warming students up to the idea of participating in elections. An example in the Guelph community would be the CSA “We’re doing it” campaign, which asks voters, “Where are you doing it?” and promoted student voting through Facebook posts and a poster campaign using the tagline and different locations within the city. Although this sort of campaign is appealing to students because it is funny and plays on recognizable faces and places, perhaps the true problem between low young voter turnout exists on a deeper level than a lack of glamour or coolness associated with voting, but as a result of the attitudes and platforms of candidates themselves.

Research by Elections Canada shows that the main reasons for Canadian youth’s disinterest in voting are:

  1. Youth do not believe that government represents them or cares about their views, their needs and their issues.
  1. The age difference distances youth from the political process and the politicians.
  2. Political parties do not reach out to them or are out of touch with youth.
  3. Youth feel that politics does not affect them, perhaps because they have not yet developed the responsibilities that are the subject of political discourse.
  4. They feel that no one listens to young people; they have no voice.

 Heather Bastedo, who conducted focus groups discussing voter apathy, revealed that most people said the same thing. “They feel a sense of powerlessness,” she reported to Maclean’s Magazine. “They’ve absorbed the lesson that they can’t effect change.” Ilona Dougherty, executive Director of Apathy is Boring, a group which seeks to mobilize the vote, told The Globe and Mail that another potential reason young people do not vote is that “we don’t ask them to.” Ilona elaborated, explaining that political parties have changed their strategies from canvassing widely for support, to a narrower and more specialized strategy focusing on targeting and delivering likely supporters. Political parties would rather focus on groups that they already appeal to rather than chasing marginal votes, which just leads to further ignoring the needs of marginal groups in their platforms, rendering them even more marginal.

Elections Canada proposes a very simple solution to increasing voter turnout, stating in their 2012 report;  “There is one way to galvanize those on the outside to vote. Speak to them. Barack Obama’s message of hope and change brought out young voters in unprecedented numbers in 2008. And in Toronto’s mayoral election last year, Rob Ford’s vow to rein in taxes helped take turnout up to 53 per cent, from 35 per cent in 2006.”

However, it would appear that the Guelph representatives have yet to adopt a stance that shows real interest in student votes. When asked about important issues to students, especially concerning transit, candidates stuck to rehearsed responses that skirted around the issues and avoided any sort of real or realistic action. Platforms were not built around real problems to students, and were catered mostly to the established family communities in Guelph. Although it is arguably easier for candidates to focus on key groups whose votes they know they can count for (for example, Cam Guthrie with the older, conservative community in Guelph), students account for a large amount of the Guelph population and it would be to candidates’ advantage to at least put a little more effort into their claims of caring about student integration in the community, and issues for young people in Guelph.

More often than not, students find themselves having to choose the most tolerable option at elections rather than an exciting, optimal option. And increasing amounts of students choose not to vote, feeling that their voice will not be heard either way or the issues of the elections do not concern them. Many students are so disconnected with local politics that they would not know there was a local election, were it not for the colourful campaign signs encroaching on all public property.

Ben Minett, owner of The Bookshelf, addressed the situation of voter apathy in the upcoming election with a concise and well thought-out article for the Guelph Mercury. Minett stated; “If I thought Guelph was best understood as the sum of its roads, sidewalks and how well they were plowed, I might consider not voting. But Guelph is a special place that needs special leaders — ones who understand that being a custodian in building this great city is complicated and defies senseless ideology.” Although it may now be too late for candidates to take any real action to change non-voters’ minds, we can only hope that in the future, candidates and students can work together to reignite interest in democracy, and create the city we all want to live in.

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