You don’t vote? Not cool.
As I buckled my seatbelt and braced for the 14-hour flight home to Ottawa from Sydney, Australia, the young ‘bloke’ sitting next to me introduced himself and asked my opinion of his country’s economic stimulus package. As a budding policy wonk and civic engagement enthusiast, I was impressed by this stranger’s political awareness. He would later tell me that he dropped out of high school to pursue surfing.
Had this happened on my flight to Australia, I would have been pretty baffled. After all, the go-to topic of conversation among Canadian youth is very rarely economic policy. But after several months living, working and studying in the land down under, I was hardly surprised by his greeting. In Australia, political chat isn’t taboo. Not even among its youth.
Voting in Australia is compulsory. And since no one likes making an uninformed vote (a majority of Canadians who abstain say they do so because “they don’t know enough”), Australian citizens of all ages pay attention to politics. It’s a stark contrast to the situation in Canada, where many of us, particularly young people, don’t talk about or engage with political activity - largely because we don’t feel the obligation. Indeed, many young Canadians feel they have little incentive, if not a disincentive, to turn up at election time and cast a vote.
Sure, most of us understand that in a democratic society, higher voter turnouts mean more legitimate and representative governments. We know that when more citizens are attuned to what governments are doing, policies are less likely to unfairly advantage or disadvantage particular social or economic groups. Ask any Canadian, young or old, if they think democracy is important, and their answer will almost certainly be an emphatic “yes!” And yet, ask if they voted in the last election, and statistically speaking, most young Canadians will say “no”.
It’s a paradox that’s been getting worse with time. Each incoming generation of eligible voters is becoming less likely to vote than older generations were when they were young. This is especially troubling given evidence that voting and abstention are habit forming; individuals who abstain from voting in a few elections while they’re young are likely to continue avoiding the polls in the future. In a nut shell: while most of us agree that voting is essential to the maintenance of a healthy democratic society, more and more of us are tuning out of political life and hoping we can free-ride our way to continued social and economic prosperity.
So what do we do? If Canadians (governments and citizens alike) truly value democracy and all of the benefits it brings, then we have to start facilitating a culture of social compulsion when it comes to civic engagement. Just as most Canadians expect each other to pay their taxes, participate on juries, stop at red lights, and send their children to school, we should expect and encourage each other to pay attention to politics and cast informed votes.
We (citizens) need to normalize the act of being civically engaged; to talk about, tweet about, and read about politics. We need to show up at election time, and call out our peers who don’t. We need to go beyond making it socially acceptable to pay attention, we have to make it socially unacceptable to be ignorant and apathetic. In the interest of securing a safe, happy, and prosperous future for ourselves, and for our country, we need to make voting cool.
Jackie Pichette, Research and Communications Officer, SFU Public Square