The Power of Young Voters: Canada’s Historic Election

Since 2000, Canadians have gone to the polls six times to elect a prime minister. That’s a lot of federal elections in a period of just 15 years (four in the last decade), and the Canadian electorate has made their burnout evident. Voter turnout has been abysmal in recent elections, reaching a historic low in 2008, when just 58.8% of registered voters showed up on election day. More troublingly, voter apathy has been disproportionately concentrated amongst the youngest eligible voters – in the 2011 election, less than 40% of Canadians aged 18 to 24 cast a vote. Maybe young people were too disillusioned to go to the polls, or just didn’t feel that their choices could make a difference. But, for whatever reason, the majority of young Canadians did not feel an urgency to vote.

This year was different. Leading up to the election it felt different. Social media abounded with political content. Young Canadians urged their peers to vote strategically, promoting websites like strategicvoting.ca and voteswap.ca. Election selfies trended on Twitter, and nearly 450,000 people RSVP’d to a “Stephen Harper Going Away Party” on Facebook. Young people also got the message, from a variety of sources, that their votes were important. Elections Canada made an active effort to break down barriers for youth voters, opening 71 advance-voting stations at university campuses and youth centers across the country. John Oliver, host of comedy talk show “Last Week Tonight”, urged Canadians to go to the polls (when is the last time American media took an interest in Canadian politics?). And prominent local comedian, Rick Mercer, gave an impassioned speech on national radio, telling Canadians “if young people show up to vote; it will change everything.”

Mercer was right.

The election results that trickled in on the night of October 19, 2015, were historic for a number of reasons. The election saw a massive swell in voter turnout. Nearly 70% of registered Canadians voted – the highest turnout for a federal election since 1993. While the exact voter breakdown has yet to be released, a sizable youth vote is believed to be a major factor behind the resounding Liberal Party victory. A September report published by non-partisan advocacy group, Samara Canada, found that Canadian millennials were actually more politically active than Canadians over the age of 30 (overwhelmingly so when it came to online participation). Paired with the election results, this suggests that voices of young voters and the issues they care about – like education, transit, and job creation – are likely to matter in Canadian politics for years to come. This is exciting, not just for Canada, but in a global context. Youth voter apathy is a problem faced across the board in developed democracies – from the United States to the United Kingdom. According to the Economist, “in not a single European country do the young turn out more than older people”, and this trend has only escalated over the past decade. The 2015 Canadian election shows that this decline is not inevitable, and it does not have to be permanent. When young people are sufficiently galvanized by social media and charismatic leadership, when the government takes concrete steps to make voting more accessible to students, and when youth are made to feel that their votes actually count, they don’t skip the polls. Milennials aren’t inherently lazy, or uninformed, or even non-political – they just need the right motivation and conditions to exercise their democratic rights.

A polling station set up for the election. The 2015 Canadian election saw the highest voter turnout in over 20 years. Photo by Raysonho, CC by 2.0, accessed via Wikimedia Commons

A polling station set up for the election. The 2015 Canadian election saw the highest voter turnout in over 20 years.
Photo by Raysonho, CC by 2.0, accessed via Wikimedia Commons

On that last point – making young people feel that their votes count – the 2015 election was especially significant. Justin Trudeau was able to unseat an incumbent, Stephen Harper, who had been in power nearly a decade because Canadians were strategic about how they used their votes. Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system can lead to major inconsistencies between seat distribution in parliament and popular vote. Voters elect one Member of Parliament, by simple majority, in each of Canada’s 338 ridings, and the party with the most seats forms government. In a three party system, with two center-left parties, this can lead to vote splitting and a perception of “wasted votes”. In Canada’s 2011 election, for example, the Conservatives captured 54% of seats in parliament (thus forming a majority government) with just 39% of the popular vote. Going into the 2015 election, many Canadians, particularly young Canadians, were dissatisfied with Harper and prioritized beating the Conservatives over voting for their first-choice candidates. The aforementioned strategicvoting.ca allowed voters in close ridings to identify which non-Conservative candidate had the best chance of winning, so their votes could have maximum impact on federal politics. Voters also used voteswap.ca to “swap” votes with someone in a riding where their preferred party was more likely to be elected, avoiding wasted votes. Ultimately, many supporters of Canada’s left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP) switched their votes to the Liberals. This all but wiped out the NDP, but it had the desired effect of getting Stephen Harper out of office.

Tactical voting in the October election was a clear expression of democratic will, but it also brought to the forefront many of the problems with Canada’s current electoral system. Even those who voted strategically had mixed feelings about it – they felt they shouldn’t have to vote tactically for their votes to count. Fortunately, this may be the last time Canadians vote under a first-past-the-post system. Following the election, Justin Trudeau reaffirmed his commitment to electoral reform, promising to transition Canada to a different electoral system (some form of proportional representation) within the next 18 months. This is encouraging in terms of future voter participation – countries with proportional representation tend to see much higher voter turnout than those with plurality systems. And it represents just one of the major changes Trudeau has pledged to bring to the Canadian public.

Prime Minister Designate, Justin Trudeau, high fives supporters at the Toronto Pride Parade in June, 2015. Photo by Alex Guibard [CC by 2.0]

Prime Minister Designate, Justin Trudeau, high fives supporters at the Toronto Pride Parade in June, 2015.
Photo by Alex Guibard [CC by 2.0]

This is the final reason the 2015 election was so significant. After close to 10 years of Conservative rule, Trudeau’s Liberal Party represents the possibility of real change. Already Trudeau has announced that he will withdraw Canadian fighter jets from the campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. He has also vowed to take in 25,000 more Syrian refugees, improve Canada’s record on climate change, legalize marijuana, and launch a long-sought after investigation on missing and murdered Aboriginal women. These are big plans, and (as with all political promises) it is yet to be seen if Trudeau will follow through with them. Canada’s future will have a lot to do with the actions of the electorate: whether or not they hold Trudeau accountable and continue to make their voices heard in the follow-up to the election. Canadians, and especially young Canadians, showed up in a big way on election day, but can they maintain this remarkable political engagement after the polls have closed? After years of bemoaning voter apathy in Canada, there is finally reason to feel optimistic.

About Author

Jessica Dorfmann

Jessica is a staff writer for the HIR. She contributes to both the blog and the magazine.