Will a scandal-packed year at city hall lure young voters at election time?

Will a scandal-packed year at city hall lure young voters at election time?

(Image: youth: Romer Jed Medina; city hall: Tony Hisgett) (Image: youth: Romer Jed Medina; city hall: Tony Hisgett)
 

Toronto’s millennials could be the determining factor in who becomes the city’s next mayor—that is, if they bother to go to the polls. Conventional wisdom has it that Rob Ford’s scandals have more voting-age youngsters talking about local politics than ever before, but there’s some question as to whether that will translate into higher-than-normal election turnout.

Younger voters have historically been more apathetic than their older counterparts, but in recent generations the trend has been getting more severe. In the 1960s, by Elections Canada’s reckoning, about 70 per cent of those who had recently turned 18 would vote in the next election; by 2004 it was closer to 30 per cent.

According to Ilona Dougherty, the president and co-founder of Apathy is Boring, a Montreal-based group aimed at encouraging younger populations to engage in their democratic right, the numbers are particularly dismal at the municipal level. Cities generally don’t track voter ages, but overall voter turnout tends to decrease with each descending level of government.

Dougherty says it’s possible to figure out the approximate percentage of eligible youth voters who visited municipal polls by shaving 20 per cent off a city’s overall figure. Toronto’s last municipal election drew a slightly better-than-normal voter turnout, with 51 per cent of eligible voters casting ballots (compared to fewer than 40 per cent in the past three elections). Using Dougherty’s formula, that means that only about a third of eligible voters under 30 went to the polls when Rob Ford was elected.

Dougherty points out that part of the problem is a simple lack of awareness. “At the municipal level, the money that is spent to promote the campaign is just not enough that citizens will be as engaged or as aware of it as they would be at the provincial or federal level,” she said.

A stronger youth turnout could very well have a significant impact on the 2014 municipal election. According to the latest census data, a quarter of Toronto’s population is between the ages of 18 and 34. If 51 per cent of that cohort came out to vote, it could make things much more difficult for some incumbents—especially Rob Ford, who in a March 27 Forum Research poll finished four points behind Olivia Chow among that age group. The situation is similar at the federal level. According to a recent analysis by pollster Nik Nanos, if more of the youth vote had turned out in the last federal election, Stephen Harper likely wouldn’t have won a majority government. The overall voter turnout was 60 per cent, but fewer than 40 per cent of voters under 30 cast ballots

Toronto’s city government is taking steps to get out the youth vote. During the 2010 election, the city’s elections services unit conducted a survey to try to figure out how to mobilize young voters. It found that many simply weren’t paying attention and didn’t know much about local politics. The city is continuing its youth outreach strategy this year, plastering post-secondary campuses with posters, using social media and hosting contests.

All of this year’s mayoral candidates would doubtless appreciate some youth support, but one of them is making an especially strong pitch to millennials. From rolling out a series of almost-funny memes, to hosting pub nights and doing an AMA session on Reddit, 59-year-old David Soknacki seems keen on attracting the attention of teens and twentysomethings. But he says it’s only a happy consequence of having a young campaign team: four of his senior staff members are under 30.

“Youth is every bit as important as every other cohort in Toronto, and I’m just delighted that they find some of the means that we’re using to reach out worthwhile,” Soknacki says, adding that he has encountered highly engaged young voters at campaign events so far. At a mayoral debate hosted at Ryerson University, students came up to him both before and after. They were even talking about policy.

“Transportation and job creation are the two top issues [raised]—other than ‘we have to do something to get rid of the incumbent,’” he says.

Could Rob Ford’s notoriety entice more young people to vote this year? If nothing else, the previous year’s international focus on city hall has surely reminded Torontonians that an election is happening. But that may not be enough, Dougherty says.

“In Montreal, we’re not as exciting as you guys are in Toronto, but we did have quite a lot of corruption,” she says. Last fall, when Montreal held its municipal elections, she and others predicted the attention would lure a bigger voter turnout.

“I thought, ‘It’s been in the news a lot. People definitely know there’s an election happening and maybe that will encourage people to get out and vote.’ It actually didn’t.”

Only about 43 per cent of eligible Montrealers voted, barely more than the 39.4 per cent that voted the last time around. Dougherty says all their research has indicated the best way to encourage younger voters to cast ballots isn’t through memes or controversy at city hall; it’s talking to them.

“It’s really interesting that in the age of social media, it’s really that in-person contact with other people who think it’s really important to get involved in democracy that makes the biggest difference.”