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Wave of younger votes: millennials, generation Z ready to flex their electoral muscle in Canadian politics

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Millennial voters are often stereotyped as apathetic and disinterested in politics, but nothing could be further from the truth. Now they're the biggest electoral cohort and are now bucking a trend of declining turnout - a fact backed up by the numbers.

MILLENNIALS FLEX ELECTORAL MUSCLE

Gabriel Duguay is only 19, but already sees voting as an almost sacred duty for his generation.

Presently an Indigenous fisheries student at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, the Truro native has kept his sights firmly set on politics back home.

“I think first of all politics is something that elevates you to think above yourself and self-interest,” said Duguay, who heads into his second year this fall. “It’s really important for my generation to think about the society we want to see.”

He described the current 18-25 age cohort to which he belongs as having “very strong ideals,” shaped by organizations that speak to their interests and influence voting patterns.

U.S. RESULTS

More than 62 million Americans born after 1980 voted in the 2018 midterm elections, weakening the Republicans’ grip on Congress.

Such organizations can span anything from social movements concerning matters like climate change to youth parliaments.

Duguay began his political journey when he was just 12. He attended Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa, just three days before then-PM Stephen Harper lost a no-confidence vote, triggering the 2011 election that gave him a majority government.

“Seeing the agitation and excitement in the House made me realize this is something I want to be a part of,” said Duguay.

The numbers back up Duguay’s feelings on voting: according to Elections Canada, roughly 4.2 million voters aged 18-34 voted in the 2015 federal election, about 57 per cent of all Canadians in both the 18-24 and 25-34 age brackets.

That’s a dramatic difference from 2011, both in terms of turnout and in raw voting numbers.

Then, just 38.8 per cent of Canadians aged 18-24 and 45.1 per cent of voters in the 25-34 age bracket made it to the polls on May 2 of that year. This works out to roughly three million voters aged between 18 and 34 who voted in that election, which saw the Conservatives under Stephen Harper win a majority.

Turnout in all four Atlantic Provinces matched the federal trend.

MILLENNIAL NUMBERS

Even though more young people are voting, they were still outnumbered in the 2015 Canadian federal election by baby boomers.

In 2015, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals formed a majority government, helped by winning all 32 Atlantic Canadian seats.

According to Abacus Data and the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations, the youngest cohort of voters aged 18-25 increased their 2015 election turnout by 12 percentage points compared to 2011.

Polls taken after the election concluded that young voters, probably motivated by Trudeau’s youth and leftish platform, delivered a majority to the Liberals. A 2016 Abacus Data poll concluded that 45 per cent of Canadians aged 18-25 voted Liberal. Abacus CEO David Coletto told Huffington Post at the time that their data suggested that “young people really gave the Liberals a majority.”

While millennials, loosely defined as anyone born between the early 1980s and early 2000s, are starting to flex their political muscles, their turnout numbers still lag behind their baby boomer parents.

In 2015 for example, 73.7 per cent of all Canadians aged 55-64 and 78.8 per cent of those in the 65-74 age bracket turned up at the polls. This translates to nearly six million voters in total between the ages of 55 and 74 casting a ballot.

In 2019, though, all millennials will be of voting age and in Canada, the age group will comprise the largest demographic among voters. There’s more of them, and more of them are voting.

REVERSAL OF FORTUNE

2015’s federal election in Canada reversed the downward trend over several campaigns of turnout among young people.

Their political muscles are bulging south of the border as well.

The Pew Institute reports that Generation Xers, Millennials and ‘Generation Z’ – loosely classed as those born after 2000 – were the largest collective group casting votes in the 2018 American midterm elections.

Of this younger group, 62.2 million of them cast votes last year, compared to 60.1 million baby boomers and older generations.

Duguay said he will vote Liberal if a federal election “is called tomorrow,” as he liked the party’s emphasis on infrastructure spending, even if it runs up a deficit.

However, he was less impressed with their Nova Scotian counterparts, who have overseen a labour dispute with teachers, an ongoing doctor shortage and closures of hospital ERs.

“I think the provincial Liberals are so focused on the bottom line that they may decide [such spending] would harm the future of Nova Scotia,” said Duguay.

While Duguay says his principles are no different per se, such discrepancies between federal and provincial voting patterns are highly common, according to Dalhousie University political sociologist Howard Ramos.

“There’s a lot of disjuncture between the federal and provincial parties,” said Ramos.

YOUNG VOTERS DELIVERED LIBERAL MAJORITY TO TRUDEAU

4.2 million
That’s the number of people aged 18-34 who cast a ballot in the 2015 federal election.

12 percentage point increase
That’s the difference in young voter turnout in the federal elections of 2011 and 2015.

37 per cent
According to Abacus data, millennials could reach this portion of the electorate in 2019, and will be the largest age segment.

Howard Ramos

So who exactly is a millennial?

According to Dr. Howard Ramos, ‘millennial’ is a somewhat complex term.

Ramos, a political sociologist at Dalhousie University, classified them as being born between 1981 and 1996, but some social scientists class millennials as anyone born up to the year 2000, or even into the early years of the 21st Century.

This would just about classify Gabriel Duguay, for instance, as a millennial according to some definitions, but the younger cohort born after 1997 are starting to come of age just in time for 2019.

“Just by life courses, there’s a difference between the two parts of the millennial generation,” said Ramos.

Older millennials graduated school and entered the job market around the time of the 2008 recession, while the generation’s younger members dodged its very worst effects.

Millennials in their late 20s and 30s often now have children and property of their own, despite continuing economic uncertainty, which continues to affect their voting patterns.

Ramos said it takes time for new voters to understand political discourse and how it may impact their lives – and for the main parties to understand them.

“This federal election is one where millennial voters will be as a demographic more sizeable than the baby boomers and if you look at the platforms, the parties have not reflected their interests,” said Ramos.

“I think that sometimes, we’re too hard on young people in terms of voting patterns,” he said.

Avery Winn has started her political career by campaigning for Lenore Zann, who is running for parliament in the Cumberland-Colchester federal riding.

“I think that voting is so important for young people, because it’s going to pave the way for our older years...”
– Avery Winn

Involved but too young to vote this time

Averi Winn is only 15, but this Truro high-schooler’s political career is off to a solid start thanks to her local MLA, sitting in on provincial legislature meetings in Halifax and canvassing at Millbrook First Nation in March.

Most recently, she signed up new members of the federal Liberals through June and July, helping her one-time MLA win the party’s nomination to be their candidate for Cumberland-Colchester in the fall election.

All that’s left to do is vote – which Winn’s generation are starting to do in increasing numbers, following decades of declining turnout stretching back to the 1970s.

“I think that voting is so important for young people, because it’s going to pave the way for our older years and we want to really think about what changes we want to see by the time the next election comes around, so we set ourselves and our communities up for success,” said Winn.

While older millennials are often concerned with issues pertaining to tax burdens, housing and the cost of living, younger ones like Winn are worried about climate change, gender and racial equality and LGBTQ+ rights.

“Federally, we had a Conservative government for about 10 years and I didn’t feel a whole lot was accomplished in the things I feel are important.”

Gabriel Duguay is 19 years old and a student at Princeton University – but has not forgotten his right to vote in Canada.

Voting from abroad

Gabriel Duguay has helped shape public policy, attending the legislature in Halifax with his local MLA where he helped draft a resolution calling for free post-secondary education.

For Duguay, it was an early lesson in why voting and political participation is important.

“It was cool being 13 and having a platform,” recalled Duguay. “Local politicians are always excited to have young people learn more about issues around them.”

Living in the United States, Gabriel Duguay’s enthusiasm for voting may be tempered by the reality of signing up.

Matthew McKenna of Elections Canada says barriers to voting may include having the proper ID or moving around a lot, meaning they constantly have to update their details.

As a student living abroad, Duguay can vote by special ballot, but must order a special application form to be sent his way.

However, with the Liberals’ repeal of Stephen Harper’s Fair Elections Act, Duguay can vote from abroad even if he remains outside Canada for more than five years, a limit imposed by the former legislation. All electors can also use their Voter Information Card as a form of ID once again.

“Students who are living away from home can decide which riding they consider their ‘home riding’ (the riding where their vote will count) – either the riding in which they are living for school, or the riding where they live when not in school (where their parents live, for example),” said McKenna. 

Gwenn Firth sees her vote as one against the sort of bigotry and sexism that is already infecting American politics.

“I was lucky to grow up in an environment where I’ve been taught, really, to vote. It is so important to use it.”
– Gwenn Firth

Why I'm voting

Gwenn Firth, 21, from Truro, is studying History and English at Acadia in Wolfville, N.S.

"I think in this election there’s been some very outspoken, differing opinions. Just looking at what’s happening in the United States over the last few years, I worry about these kinds of attitudes coming to Canada that I feel are quite negative.

"There’s so much discrimination around Islamophobia, women’s rights and LGBTQ+ rights. I believe that the definition of a free country is that we’re all free to be who we are, safely, and I want to protect that.

"For me, the El Paso shooting really drove home the values I want to protect in Canada. There’s a reason that’s not happening here to the same degree, because we voted to protect our people. I really hope as a country we can set an example, so the States can follow in the future.

"I fear that the new leadership of the Conservative Party under Andrew Scheer does not believe in protecting these rights as I do.

"I meet with a very 50-50 response regarding other people in my generation voting, in my opinion. I was lucky to grow up in an environment where I’ve been taught, really, to vote. It is so important to use it. At the same time, I think some people underestimate their power with that vote, thinking that one vote won’t make a difference.

"I think it’s really important for people to think of not only who’s going to be representing them at a leadership level, but also who’s going to represent them in their local area."

POLITICAL PARTICIPATION

70 per cent
Canadians 18-29 years of age have the highest rate of discussion, 70%, over the phone or face-to-face.

21 percentage points
The difference between 2014 and 2019 in percentage of Canadians 18-29 who follow a politician or candidate on social media, from 33 per cent to 54 per cent.

39 per cent
Canadians 18-29 have the highest participation rate of any age group for having attended a political meeting or speech. - Source: Samara Centre for Democracy

NEXT FRIDAY

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