Younger Canadians view voting as choice, not duty: Elections Canada

By Palak Mangat May 8, 2022

While lowering the voting age to 16 is “fundamentally” a policy decision for parliamentarians to make, Elections Canada officials highlighted a “registration gap” Thursday for those under 25, acknowledging there remain barriers to voting for younger Canadians.

Speaking to the procedure and House affairs committee, chief electoral officer Stéphane Perrault said it is “an important issue for Parliament to consider.”

“It’s for MPs to have those discussions, and they’re having them right now,” he said in response to NDP MP Taylor Bachrach, whose private member’s Bill C-210 came up for second reading this week.

Noting a “main area” of focus for Elections Canada in recent years has been to make sure youth can “register early on” to vote, he said 96 per cent of Canadians are registered to do so, with those missing “mainly” making up younger cohorts.

Paired with those “informational barriers,” younger Canadians frequently report a “lack of interest,” added Susan Torosian, executive director of the agency’s public affairs and civic education. “They feel they cannot make a difference when they vote … and are not [typically] contacted by a candidate,” she said. “They also don’t view voting as a duty, but a choice,” sentiments that speak to the “motivational side of things.”

NDP MP Taylor Bachrach speaks on his private member’s Bill C-210, The Right to Vote at 16 Act, in the chamber.

Growing voices

Bachrach’s bill has renewed calls for Canada to ditch the existing requirement of 18 to align more with countries like Germany, Scotland and Argentina. Debate has continued to creep into the “political narrative,” thanks to backing from non-affiliated Senator Marilou McPhedran, who tabled a similar effort in Bill S-209, said Camellia Wong, who works with Future Majority.

Noting it follows a legal challenge filed last year to lower the age — with backers of that effort decrying that climate change is putting the planet at a “tipping point,” a matter that will disproportionately affect younger Canadians — Wong said letting 16-year-olds vote would be a “game changer.”

“The big issues we are facing as a country that governments have authority to take action over, like climate change and affordability,” will hit younger voters harder and more directly because decisions made today will “impact our future and the way we’re able to live our lives [for] generations,” said Wong.

But a simple change in policy won’t mean everyone takes advantage of it, she cautioned.

“You can’t just lower the voting age and expect folks to engage. We need to be able to build in voter education tools and programs in high schools,” she said.

That could open the way to put “ballot boxes in schools” to boost accessibility, putting a renewed importance on politicians meeting younger voters “where they’re at” — such as by tapping on social media platforms to boost their outreach.

In recognition of gaps on that front, the Tories have carved out specific roles within their opposition bench, naming rookie MP Melissa Lantsman as their chair of outreach. The Grits have also, since taking office, held various town halls with youth and folded a youth mandate into Marci Ien’s portfolio.

‘Gamechanger’ registry

Annalisa Harris, a former staffer to then-Liberal MP Marlene Jennings who worked on the Hill at 16, said there is “no question” the right to vote at 16 should be enshrined in Canada, but it remains an open question whether more younger electors will actually exercise that right — given that 18-year-olds typically have lower turnout.

According to the agency, turnout for those aged 18 to 24 sat at 57.1 per cent in 2015 before dipping to 53.9 per cent in 2019. While 76 per cent of eligible Canadians reported voting in last fall’s election, 66 per cent of those eligible between 18 and 24 cast a ballot.

“Elections Canada could make this pivot,” said Harris, pointing to the “game changer” tool of a registry of future electors, brought in three years ago, which lists information on citizens between 14 and 17 who consent to register with the agency. That means future voters are “already in the system,” as people turning 18 are added onto the national registry to update the broader list referenced by Perrault.

Harris noted while some parties allow Canadians as young as 14 to become members (like the Tories and Liberals), there remain gaps in the agency’s efforts to target voters.

Perrault said the agency is focused on two “short-term priorities” ahead of the next election, one of which is to restore the vote-on-campus initiative. Piloted in 2015, the agency’s decision to scrap it during the fourth wave last year was heavily criticized, with Perrault highlighting a “tight labour force” amid the pandmeic.

Harris agreed getting younger cohorts to cast their vote is “really hard.”

“It’s a chicken and egg thing. Young voters are apathetic, so political parties don’t reach out to them, so young voters are apathetic,” she explained. “It’s the duty of candidates and political parties to make efforts to reach out to young people — but I also totally understand why they’re not putting the resources into that.”