I turned 18 a few months before the 2021 Calgary municipal election. It was my first opportunity to vote, to share my voice, to experience the peoples’ power and contribute to that ultimate goal of democracy.
The weeks prior to election day, however, became an absolute nightmare.
There were 27 mayoral candidates to choose from, on top of a ward councillor, school board trustee and two referendum questions. Deciphering the enigma of each platform felt impossible, and I began to dread voting day, wondering if knowing any of it would really make a difference.
That fateful day was a blur. The black ink, ovals beside each name and the referendum questions jumbling together as I hid behind the screen.
And just like that, it was all over. I had done my civic duty – feeling completely dissociated from the process and wondering how I could possibly drag myself to do it again.
Although youth voter turnout has increased federally since 2011, the number of youth heading to the polls still remains much lower than electoral participation among older generations, prompting many to attribute the issue to youth apathy.
The real challenge in bringing youth to the polls, however, is not in addressing apathy but in providing meaningful ways for youth to engage in political processes.
Hearing from my friends about their first experiences voting, I discovered I was not alone in feeling detached from the process. Many said they felt there was no point, adding they could contribute in more meaningful ways through a protest or petition.
A 2021 Elections Canada study explains how most of the Generation Z population – those born between the mid to late 1990s and early 2010s – are more likely to get involved in activism and civic processes outside of voting, but still turn out in smaller numbers compared to their older counterparts.
According to a 2022 Elections Canada report, only 66 per cent of eligible voters aged 18-24 voted in the 2021 federal election. Within that age group, 33 per cent reported a lack of interest in politics as a reason for avoiding the polls.
Conversely, youth lead the charge in non-electoral activities, with a 2022 Statistics Canada report demonstrating 48 per cent of youth were more likely to sign an online petition, whereas older adults aged 31-46 would only do so 37 per cent of the time.
The same is true for internet forums, with 24 per cent saying they would use the format to express their opinions. Twenty per cent of older adults said they would do the same.
With the Alberta provincial election coming up on May 29, engaging Gen Z in the process is a critical issue, as according to the Business Council of Alberta they comprise 19.7 per cent of the province’s population.
Cora-Lee Conway, manager of corporate services and media relations with Elections Alberta says only seven per cent of the eligible 20 per cent of voters aged 18-24 voted in the 2019 Alberta provincial election.
“There’s a pretty significant discrepancy between those who went out and voted and those who are eligible to vote,” Conway says.
No real root of the problem
Conway says there is no specific reason as to why voting levels were lower among young adults.
She says that according to post-election surveys, 83 per cent of respondents saw election information advertisements, with 53 per cent reporting they trusted the electoral process.
Conway says Elections Alberta is focused on looking into “what the disconnect is between having access to information, having trust in electoral systems and then not engaging in them.”
Samantha Scott, chair for the Council of Alberta University Students (CAUS) says a lack of knowledge and voter apathy could contribute to this disconnect.
“I know that we hear not only from students, but just a lot of the general population saying like, ‘Oh, I don’t think my vote matters,’ or like, ‘Oh, I don’t think I have the impact to change things,’” Scott says.
Conway disagrees, however, saying youth are passionate political advocates.
“What I see in my work with young people are very deeply engaged citizens who are involved in climate justice or anti-racism or a number of social issues of our day that are of deep concern to many of us,” Conway says.
While it can be hard to pinpoint a single cause of fewer young voters, the problem still remains as to how best address these discrepancies.
In November 2020 – in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic – Elections Alberta launched their Youth VOTE program, aiming to connect youth across the province in a virtual format and give them an opportunity to share their perspectives.
Conway notes that although the program is not active anymore, high participation rates demonstrated “that young people definitely do care and that we could find different ways to engage young people.”
The program fostered connections with CIVIX’s Student Vote Program, which creates mock-elections in elementary, middle and high schools, as well as organizations such as the YMCA and the Boys and Girls Club.
I remember participating in a mock-election in grade six – an experience completely different from my actual election catastrophe – where I left feeling a sense of pride and involvement, not emptiness and severance.
Elections Alberta also partners with organizations looking to run Get Out the Vote (GOTV) campaigns during provincial election years, providing information and graphics they can use to encourage participation.
Scott says this is the first year CAUS has run a GOTV campaign, although they have had similar initiatives in the past.
CAUS is a non-partisan student advocacy organization, representing over 114,000 students from five Alberta institutions – Athabasca University, MacEwan University, Mount Royal University, the University of Alberta and the University of Lethbridge.
CAUS’ program focuses on collecting students’ commitments to vote, through their Pledge to Vote online petition, based on a model the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations uses for federal elections.
“With this, our goal is to get across the province and collect pledges from students all over,” Scott says. “From there we’ll be able to contact them about where their nearest polling station is and when advanced polls are open in their area and where their polling stations are and that type of information.”
Scott adds helping inform students where they can vote works to eliminate the stress of not knowing what riding they belong to or where they can go.
But what about combating the headache surrounding the sheer volume of information?
Conway says Elections Alberta works to utilize social media as well as pointing people to their website for condensed, simplified versions of party platforms. She adds their provincial call centre is always open for questions too.
Scott too, says CAUS uses social media to share easy-to-understand graphics with students to capture their attention about voting.
So maybe voting on May 29 does not have to be the unrewarding terror I found it to be in 2021. Perhaps with the right information and knowledge about where to find it, the process can appeal to more Gen Zers and create less overwhelming confusion for young voters.
Having our voices heard is key too. Knowing there are people who value what we have to say – that politicians will look for our votes because they believe we have perspectives worth courting – contributes to a more inclusive electoral process, one where the onus is not solely on us, but on everybody to ensure the people’s power really belongs to every person involved.
Of course, the cynic in me wonders if voter turnout will change this coming election, but the optimist inside protests it will.