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Getting the Youth Vote

Want young people to vote? Try a fresh appeal, hot issues, and schooling that takes kids' decisions seriously.

Vanessa Richmond 26 May

Tyee contributing editor Vanessa Richmond writes the Schlock and Awe column about popular culture and the media. She is also the former managing editor of The Tyee.

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TheTyee.caThe more that white, middle-aged people wring their hands about how to get youth to vote, the more they're doomed to fail.So say a lot of young people wary of earnest appeals to cast ballots this federal election.Take Sarah Mortazavi, who is 16, from West Vancouver, and the newly crowned winner of the World Public Speaking and Debating Championship. She's visited Elections Canada's youth-oriented web site, and wishes she hadn't."The 'Games and Puzzles' section angers me to no end," sighs Mortazavi, "and being talked down to angers me more."Then there's the study commissioned by Elections Canada which blames low youth voter turnout on "low levels of political interest and knowledge; a declining sense that voting is a civic duty; certain personal and administrative factors (e.g. too busy, voter registration difficulty), and lack of contact with political parties and candidates."That kind of "answer" itself is the problem, says Sara Rozell, a 26 year old political science student at SFU. "Who even knows what 'civic duty' means? They're not even talking our language. And the rest is dumbed down."Get Your Vote OnRozell is a student senator at SFU and a board member of Get Your Vote On, a new youth voting lobby based in Vancouver. She attended an alternative school in Calgary where students themselves allocated budget money and made decisions about how to complete therequired curriculum. Getting students involved in decisions from an early age, she says, is a great way to plant political seeds in them. The other key is too have youth running the show - Elections Canada say they are partnering with youth but youth are rarely seen in their efforts.Another way, she says, is to make politics "more sexy and fun. If you aren't funny, you won't get the youth vote."Rozell wonders at the fuss over Canada perhaps lowering the voting age to 16. "You can drive, you can be charged with any crime as an adult," she notes. "Why not say: 'We're confident you guys can make the right decisions.'"But when Jean Pierre Kingsley, the Chief Electoral Officer for Elections Canada, said youth voting is one his top priorities and suggested to a House Committee on Electoral Reform that the federal voting age be lowered to 16, his idea sparked loud controversy.20 million youth votes.for IdolMeanwhile, over 20.5 million people cast their votes for Canadian Idol, many of whom were in the 18-24 demographic. Almost certainly, more people of that age voted for Canadian Idol than voted in the last provincial or federal election. In Britain, Vegas, a youth market research firm, found that substantially more 18-24 year olds voted for Pop Idol than voted for Tony Blair or his counterparts.Now, as the five week federal election deadline looms, politicians and Elections Canada are hoping that more 18-24 year olds vote than the 25 percent who did in the last, 2000 election.Elections Canada is working with the Canadian Federation of Students and Student Vote 2004 on initiatives including sending letters to every Canadian on his or her 18th birthday along with a voter registration card. And in March, they launched that new youth voting website.But many youth say these efforts are irrelevant or misguided, and don't expect an upturn in voting numbers.Zander Rafael, an 18 year old from West Vancouver, is in first year arts at Harvard. Rafael says youth don't tend to vote mostly because of the issues at stake. When his parents were young, the culture was very political, and "things like feminism and civil rights were on everyone's minds. But the issues of our generation are things like AIDS in Africa, globalization. All these things seem far bigger than what we can solve by voting for a local politician."'That's what counts'Among his classmates at Harvard, Rafael notes, "Everyone puts their efforts into interning at Goldman Sachs or taking extra courses to increase their chances of getting into grad school. We just know that's what counts."Rafael scans the landscape of Canadian political issues and finds it flat. "If the Conservative Party said, 'We're going to criminalize abortion, make marijuana punishable by death, and outlaw gay marriage,' then youth would be at the polling station." Due to the Iraq war and a far more polarized electorate, this year's American presidential race is hotter by contrast.Rafael would like to see the voting age lowered to 16, and echoed other young people by suggesting the schools could do a lot more to engage students in the political process, including pointing them to political websites, having candidates in, and then setting aside time to allow students of voting age to go and vote in the school.What about teachers with their own political biases trying to influence students' votes? Teachers say if clear rules required them to present all parties equally, it would be easy to monitor. And they'd have incentive to play fair. It's common knowledge among teachers that if you declare anything controversial to a class of 30, then 60 potentially angered parents will hear about it at the dinner table.'Cheap charisma and sex appeal'Kevin Milsip agrees the schools could be a far better catalyst for youth voting. Milsip is a trustee on the Vancouver School Board and one of the coordinators of Get Your Vote On. He and Vancouver Park Board trustee Lindsay Popes, the youngest elected official in Canada, started the Democracy Project and have spoken to over 15,000 young people so far.Get Your Vote On models itself after such highly successful U.S. groups as MTV's Rock the Vote the Hip Hop Summit Action Network's League of Hip Hop Voters and the World Wrestling Entertainment's Smackdown Your Vote. These youth organizations partner with the music and entertainment industries and poll on what issues are important to the age group. Get Your Vote On plans to communicate youth concerns to politicians and report on politicians' platforms to youth. After the election, they will stay active by holding politicians to account.Milsip says his experiences in high schools tell him youth are well informed. When his group first visited classrooms ten years ago, few responded when asked what globalization meant. Now, every hand is up. In a poll on the Get Your Vote On website, youth named education their top issue with 96 percent saying it is "very important or super very important," followed by health care at 95 percent, and the environment at93 percent. Many said "please don't ever mention tax cuts again." And most said "be honest with us, listen to us, involve us."Yet, observes Rozell, even the younger politicians "dress and act old." She agrees with Sarah Mortazavi's solution: "cheap charisma and sex appeal."Keen versus coolThom Drance, a 16 year old in Vancouver, notes many young people don't believe voting is the most effective way to wield political influence. "My dad doesn't vote but he donates to political parties - that counts way more than voting. I can't do that. I can donate my time, so I do. That's more valuable than voting, but not as powerful as donating."But Dance says he is tired of "white dinosaurs like Bush, Martin, Harper, Cheney, Rumsfeld." He thinks the key to change might lie not only in lowering the voting age but making voting mandatory, like in Australia. Why? The intricacies of peer culture: "If you have to take responsibility, you will. If you don't have to do it, and you're the only one into it, you look too keen. But if you have to, then it's cool."Vanessa Richmond is a Vancouver journalist. Her previous story for The Tyee looked at the new knitting craze.  [Tyee]

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