A Toxic Environment for Hope: the Problem of Youth Voter Apathy

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The other day I found myself struck by a strangely piercing question: what does a broken record sound like?

My family never having never owned a record player, and me not being into the vinyl revival, I found myself struck by the idea that there are sounds that between generations disappear from collective memory entirely. I can already see this happening. My teenage brother, I found out the other day, does not remember dial up. Yet for me the screeching whir of our dial up modem will be forever connected to an image of me at six teaching myself to use my mom’s Macintosh 128K.

Whenever we finish an election, news outlets seem to inevitably, in the midst of decrying low voter turnout, point the finger at young people for not voting. 

In most cases, the numbers support their concern. In the 2011 federal election for example, only 58.5% of those able to vote did, and in the 18-24 and 25-34 age ranges, that number slumped to 38.8% and 45.1% respectively. But in the wake of our recent provincial election, even before the official data numbers were released, people were quick to lay the blame for low voter turnout on youth. I point this out not because the issue of youth voter apathy is not significant, but because it seems we’ve become a broken record when it comes to identifying why young people (18-24) don’t vote.

Sandy Garossino, in her recent commentary on the results of the BC election, inadvertently gives excellent voice to the rhetoric that follows the initial outcry around low youth voter turnout: “We’ve got to inspire, engage, excite and involve our young people.They’ve got to see that the polling station is where they have a voice.”

She goes on to cite the “deeper” reason for the low youth vote as being the campaign’s focus on the “forty plus crowd.” This dialogue too seems to be skipping; the conversation about youth voting comes up again and again with the same answers. Yet, when action is taken to engage the youth vote in the wake of yet another election with low youth voter turnout, we find ourselves in the same situation again.

Political commentators, in the midst of repeating themselves, rarely ask the more basic and pertinent question: why don’t young people, people who are supposed to be idealistic and full of hope (or naïveté) about changing the world engage in the political process? When they do, the answers also seem to repeat themselves.

Some argue that young people are spoiled. They’re lazy and don’t understand the value of the rights hard won for them by their elders. Some argue that the youth aren’t educated. Either they don’t understand how the system works, or aren’t informed about the parties. Subsequently, efforts to engage youth focus around making voting "hip" through social media and youth events, and political parties trying to make their platforms “relevant” and engaging.

Perhaps young people are unappreciative and uninformed, but this still does not explain why youth don’t get out and vote; you can have no idea why you are voting for a candidate, and how you received the right to vote for that candidate, and still cast a vote. The action of voting, physically going to a polling station and marking an "X" next to a name, requires only a basic knowledge of where the polling station is and what you need to bring.  Nothing that Google can’t fix.

The real question is, why can’t young people muster the physical, emotional, or mental energy to vote? The answer that I almost never hear to the question, and the one I wish to speak about, is the simplest: we live in a toxic environment for hope.

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