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Engaging young non-voters

When it comes to the concept of young people and political engagement, the dominant dialogue is that those under the age of 30 aren't casting ballots.
Seth Jex, UNBC Political Science Student Association co-president, right, listens to city council candidate Jillian Merrick, left, speak at the organization's candidate meet and greet on Oct. 30.

When it comes to the concept of young people and political engagement, the dominant dialogue is that those under the age of 30 aren't casting ballots.

They may be the first to sign a petition or participate in a demonstration, but they're not showing up on voting day.

The decline in turnout for those newly eligible to vote began in the 1970s, according to a 2011 report prepared for Elections Canada by Universite de Montreal's Andre Blais and University of Toronto's Peter Loewen. And it's a slide that's ongoing and worldwide.

"The turnout rate of new cohorts had already declined to about 50 per cent in the 1980s and into the 40 per cent range in the 1990s," Blais and Loewen wrote. "We have also confirmed that the recent turnout decline observed in Canada, as in many other countries, is mainly due to the drop in electoral participation among recent cohorts. The turnout rate of new cohorts (who are eligible to vote for the first time in an election) is now only slightly over 30 per cent, while it used to be over 60 per cent."

What studies haven't nailed down is a definitive reason for the decline.

A lack of engagement in local politics could be a chicken-or-the-egg scenario, said Jessica Chen.

"I think the youth and students' relationship [with local government] is kind of a vicious cycle," she said. "Because the students don't think their feedback is going to be listened to, they don't give feedback. And because they don't give feedback the city doesn't really try to get feedback from students and incorporate them because they don't get enough feedback. It just goes around."

Chen, 17, is a senior at Duchess Park secondary school. Though unable to cast a ballot, Chen has remained engaged in the civic process. She was selected as a representative of the Prince George Public Library's youth advisory board to pose a question to mayoral candidates Lyn Hall and Don Zurowski at their first public head-to-head on Oct.15.

And Chen's interaction with the candidates highlighted the disconnect between politicians and their younger audience.

"Honestly, I felt like they didn't give me much of a response at all - they didn't really answer my question," Chen said.

After posing a question about how the potential mayors could incorporate feedback from the younger demographic into their policy decisions, Hall and Zurowski talked about ways to solicit that feedback.

Part of the reason Chen said she has sat on the library's advisory board for the past few years is because she sees her group's input put into practice.

"It makes me feel like I'm doing something - I'm not just wasting my time giving feedback when no one's going to take me seriously anyway," Chen said. "And that's how I feel with the city right now."

Talking about social media and making improvements to the city's online presence has its merits, but youth engagement doesn't mean starting a Twitter hashtag and assuming everyone in the targeted demographic will be on board.

"[The stereotype] is kind of based on the fact we spend a lot of time on our phones. But for votes and giving our opinions and such, when it's on social media we don't really take it seriously," Chen said. "I take stuff more seriously if I actually had to write it down on paper, think about it, submit it."

Getting younger people to vote doesn't have a one-size-fits-all solution, according to Laval University's Francois Gelineau. In his 2013 study of the results of the Elections Canada National Youth Survey, Gelineau wrote the "findings make it clear that Canadian youth cannot be treated as a homogenous group. Political interest and knowledge are not uniformly distributed among 18-34-year olds."

One point both mayoral candidates did make in response to Chen's question last month was the importance of bringing the discussion to where the young people are.

And it's a point echoed by Seth Jex, co-president of the Political Science Student Association at the University of Northern B.C.

Last week, the student group hosted a well-attended all-candidates' forum, where students and other residents could sit down and engage with city council candidates in a series of round-table discussions on various issues.

"What I would really like to see in municipal politics in Prince George is a very strong attentiveness to UNBC and CNC and the schools that we have here. Because that's where a lot of the young people are learning, that's where a lot of the young people of this community are operating," said Jex. "And the more involved that the municipal system can be in those facilities, it can only help to improve the sense of community and the sense of ownership that the students have over their community."

While federal and provincial politics are "more glitz and glam," said Jex, it's the local operation that has the most impact on daily life.

One stand-out issue for students is public transportation, but young people are invested in so much more, said Jex.

"Everything from crime rates and the feel of the downtown and the atmosphere, to perception abroad," he said. "All these different sort of areas, they all contribute to student life and the life of young people within Prince George."

While UNBC is a politically engaged campus according to Jex, Chen said her peers aren't as plugged in.

There's next to no contact with city officials, she said, adding that her school hasn't put together a mock election or focused on local elections as part of the curriculum.

"It would be great if we had officials coming in at lunch or after school," Chen said.

This year, five local schools are participating in Student Vote, which runs parallel elections for students under the voting age. Those faux-voting opportunities will be available at Prince George and DP Todd secondary schools and Ron Brent, Peden Hill, Heather Park and Foothills elementary schools.

Students at UNBC will have a chance to do the real thing, with an advance voting opportunity available at the post-secondary school on Nov. 13 in the Doug Little Lounge between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.

"It's a great opportunity for students - we all have midterms coming up, we all have papers due. It makes it really simple, really easy and really convenient to get your vote in," said Jex. "If you're available or you're eligible to vote, there really is no excuse to not be informed and not cast your ballot."