For about 250,000 Albertans born between 1994 and 1997, this election is their first opportunity to vote provincially. And, as the demographically youngest province in Canada, Alberta has the highest number per capita of residents under the age of 30. We have a lot of young people here.
As an elected student leader in past elections, I championed the value of participating in elections and the political process to my compatriots. Political parties listen to those who show up and vote. Boots-on-the-ground volunteers have the ear of the politicians they support. But Canadian youth are historically disengaged with the electoral process. For instance, in the 2011 federal election, just 38.8 per cent of Canadians aged 18-24 voted—compared to 61.1 per cent of the general population.
Already many political commentators , including Calgary’s popular mayor, Naheed Nenshi, are forecasting a record-low voter turnout. Mount Royal University professor Duane Bratt predicts voter turnout could dip into the 30-per-cent range. In 2008, Alberta recorded a countrywide low voter turnout at just 40.8 per cent.
To combat anticipated voter apathy, Elections Alberta launched a $1-millon advertising campaign that specifically “urges young Albertans to vote.” The “Decide for Yourself” ads feature a man doing everyday activities with another intervening with his own preferences. Unfortunately, these ads do not seem to be gaining traction. At the time of this post, ads on YouTube have just over 11,000 views. A sample ad is below:
While I’ve generally positioned myself on the centre-right of the political scale, most of the student leaders I worked with in the past were left-leaning. And, if you believe recent polls in Alberta, support for the NDP is growing. The NDP has a formidable opportunity to capitalize on the left-leaning youth vote to drive its support up further.
Youth have a great deal invested—and a great deal to lose—in the outcome of this provincial election. Given Innovation and Advanced Education Minister Don Scott’s comments on reviewing Alberta’s tuition framework, the Government of Alberta is positioned to potentially make significant changes that could impact the access and affordability of Alberta’s post-secondary institutions. University of Alberta Students’ Union President-elect Navneet Khinda notes that the “election timing is absolutely terrible for students,” largely due to exams and students mobility following the conclusion of the winter term. On a positive note, more students will be eligible to vote this election because, for the first time, they will be able to determine their “ordinary residence” as either the constituency they study in or their permanent home address. Prior to December 2012, students were only eligible to vote in their home constituency—which in some cases made voting prohibitive due to travel times.
Initiatives such as the Canadian Taxpayer Federation’s “Generation Screwed,” and national awareness campaign “Generation Squeeze,” have emerged to lobby on behalf of younger Canadians and ensure governments work for “all generations.” Whether these campaigns are able to successfully capture the imagination of younger voters remains to be seen.
So how can political parties engage youth? Today’s youth are skeptical about glossy, polished campaigns and vague talking points. Our generation is that of the occasional F-bomb, the selfie, the questionable Snapchat photo and blunt arguments which include lines we sometimes regret. We live fast-paced lifestyles, consume information quickly and are quick to move from one topic to the next. Innovation and “newness” catches our eyes. We want our politicians to be real and to look, act and talk like regular people who aren’t perfect, but who are more trustworthy than glossy spin—who are authentic. And when leaders are real, we are willing to forgive them for the odd mistake or dumb comment. Authenticity builds trust. Youth can be engaged through imperfect but real conversations. Politicians can engage youth by allowing themselves to be vulnerable and showcasing who they are—flaws and all. At forums, in media scrums and on social media, show us real emotion, let the occasional crutch word slide and talk about real life in real life lingo—not just “economic growth,” “prosperity,” “boom and busts,” and other clichés. This feels risky to political strategists, but losing seats is an equally real risk this election.
Given recent polling numbers that suggest competitive races in numerous constituencies across the province, and projected low voter turnout numbers, one thing is clear—voters who cast a ballot on May 5 will matter. For political parties, young Albertans represent a potentially untapped gold mine of support and ballots. For youth, this election represents a chance to meaningfully shape Alberta’s future. If either capitalizes on this opportunity successfully, election day could be interesting.