Younger voters turned out in record numbers in 2015. Will they be back?

Younger voters turned out in record numbers in 2015. Will they be back?

OTTAWA—Emma Lim is excited, but not necessarily for the reasons you might expect an 18-year-old starting university in Montreal to be excited.

Lim is excited to vote in her first federal election this October.

As the Ontario organizer for Climate Strike Canada, a nationwide student movement created to advocate for federal action on climate change and environmental issues, Lim sees a strong interest in politics among her peers.

“Not to trivialize the issue at all, but it’s almost become trendy to be politically engaged,” Lim told the Star in an interview while taking a break from frosh week revelry.

“Everybody who says, ‘That won’t work,’ or ‘That’s ridiculous,’ or ‘It doesn’t matter, it’s a lost cause’ — that’s always my parents’ generation or my grandparents’. But from my own peers? People are very engaged and involved.”

If she’s right, Canadians should see a marked increase in youth voter turnout after nearly four decades of declining participation by young people in federal elections.

Voter turnout among Canadians aged 18 to 29 had been trending downward since 1984, according to figures compiled by the Library of Parliament. While overall turnout declined over that period, the decline in participation among older Canadians was minor compared to that of younger voters.

That changed in the 2015 federal election that brought Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party to power. Participation from voters aged 18 to 24 surged 18 percentage points, to 57.1 per cent. In the 25-to-34-year-old cohort, 57.4 per cent cast a ballot — an increase of roughly 12 percentage points from 2011 levels.


One of the key questions heading into this October’s federal election is whether young Canadians will keep showing up, or if 2015 was the outlier on a much gloomier trend line.

Frédérique Dombrowski, the outreach and stakeholder manager at the advocacy group CIVIX, said the young Canadians she works with are engaging with politics, but may be doing it differently than their older fellow citizens.

“We’ve seen a lot of advocacy-based engagement since the last election. Students are very vocal,” said Dombrowski, whose organization promotes civic engagement among young Canadians.

“We see a lot of interest in meeting with the representatives and voicing their concerns and their opinions, and also being a lot more aware of our online information and how disinformation is playing a role of that, and an increased awareness of the system they live in and how they can address those issues.”

Academics studying voter participation refer to something called the “life-cycle effect” — that as citizens age, they become more likely to vote.

“Owing to various structural, social, moral and economic factors, a smaller percentage of young people vote compared to older people. As young non-voters age, they are more likely to vote,” the Library of Parliament explained.

But some researchers have noted that trend is not as strong for voters born in the 1970s and later. As those non-voters age, they appear more likely to remain non-voters.


Peter Loewen, a University of Toronto professor who has researched youth voter turnout, said there are two questions to ask: will the people who voted last time vote again, and will first-time voters turn out in the same numbers as they did in 2015?

“We should expect them to keep voting, because conditional upon voting once, you’re always more likely to vote again, and as you get older you’re more likely to vote,” said Loewen.

“The question is, for the tranche of the population aged 22 and younger who are coming into this election for the first time, are they going to enter at the same rate as the people one election ahead of them did?”

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Whether or not younger voters show up this October could have a significant impact on the election’s outcome. Data released by Angus Reid on Thursday suggest that Conservative support is higher among older voters. Support for the Conservative Party goes from 32 per cent for 18-to-34-year-old men to 53 per cent for men aged 55 and older. The trend holds for women — 18 per cent of women aged 18 to 34 support the Conservative Party, with that support growing to 33 per cent among women 55 and older.

Younger voters tend to support progressive parties. According to Angus Reid’s data, support for the New Democrats sharply drops off among voters aged 35 and older. The Liberals’ support, however, remains flat at roughly 25 per cent for men of all ages, while support among women rises from 33 per cent for those aged 18 to 34 to 44 per cent for women over 55.

What parties decide to make central issues could also influence whether young Canadians turn up at the ballot box.

The Liberals, for instance, are expected to make climate change and environmental issues a major part of their re-election bid. A March survey by Abacus Data suggested that millennials — the cohort born between 1981 and 1996 — are more likely to list climate change as a top political concern. Among millennials, 37 per cent of those surveyed said that climate change will be the top or one of the top two factors that will influence how they vote. That drops to 30 per cent for Generation X voters, and 25 per cent for baby boomers.

The Conservatives, on the other hand, have made affordability their central message — something that resonates with young voters just starting their careers, paying off student debt, or trying to buy their first homes. A 2018 BDO survey found that 34 per cent of millennials say their debt loads are overwhelming and they don’t know what to do about it. That decreases to 13 per cent of boomers and seniors.

How much these issues drive young voters to the polls remains to be seen; 2015 could very well have been an outlier, a “change” election where youth turned out to turf a Conservative government nine years into its life for a younger Liberal leader who was making all kinds of interesting promises.

Of course, that Liberal leader proceeded to break some of those interesting promises — to balance the books by 2019, say, or to reform Canada’s electoral system. On Thursday, Trudeau was asked if he bears responsibility for some of those young voters becoming cynical with the political system.

“I think we’re seeing a rise in cynicism all around the world right now, with excessive populism, exaggerated nationalism, politics of attack and division, politics of vote suppression, of (getting) people to cross their arms and stay home,” Trudeau told reporters in B.C.

“We’ve worked extremely hard to fulfil the promise we made to Canadians, which is to create a growing and prosperous economy, and to support the middle class and those working hard to join it.”

Canadians of all ages will note the prime minister didn’t answer the question.

Trudeau will have to reckon with Emma Lim’s vote. What remains to be seen is how many of her peers will join her at the ballot box.

Alex Boutilier

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