Beyond the Ballot is a new series exploring democratic participation among young adults.
“I must urge you all to vote,” said a European Union political party member to a room of Canadian later-undergraduates and MA students, “because your generation does not vote and if you don’t vote, your voice can’t be heard.”
These words were addressed to me nearly 11 months ago, when I was lucky enough to be part of a European Union study tour and internship program for Canadian students. They ignited a curiosity in me. In all of my political science education, I would never have argued that voting was the only available channel for one’s voice to be heard. That voting is the only time in which a democracy occurs. That it is the only form of political participation. Just because an individual abstains from voting does not mean they are silent.
He was right about one fact, however: my generation, our generation, does not vote.
But that does not necessarily mean that we are silent.
There has been a decline in youth voter turnout in Canada, and a large part of this downturn is due to new voters rejecting participation in formal channels of democracy because of negative attitudes towards voting, or a lack of personal influencers encouraging political participation. And yet, the democratic values of younger generations are still exceptionally strong. A 2009 Canadian parliamentary dialogue argued that even though young people vote less, they are “by no means disengaged from their communities.” A recommendation from the Council of Europe argued that the democratic engagement of young people is based on their own personal understanding of democracy and citizenship “in a society in which they feel marginalized from the political process.” The participation of young people today is found in social justice advocacy, environmental organizations, consumer activism, personal politics, international development projects, online petitions, and digital engagement.
The purpose of this series is to explore civic participation among young people. If we choose not to vote, what other channels are available to us? Are we really just political drop-outs who do not vote because apathy numbs our political nerve? Or are we political protesters who deliberately substitute our votes for social media shares? This series does not intend to doubt the importance of voting in a democratic system or undermine efforts to encourage voting for young people, but rather to explore the participation of young people more widely.
It is an exploration of democracy and democratic participation in the twenty-first century. If younger generations are participating in democracy through different channels, it may be worth considering how we conceptualize civic engagement on a fundamental level. The most pertinent issues that we face today such as climate change and global inequality are long-lasting decisions that young people today will not escape. These political issues are ours, so let’s reclaim them.
Beyond the Ballot will include analyses of forms of participation, why there is a rejection of formal channels of participation, and political leaders’ engagement with youth, occurring bi-weekly until the end of June.
Banner design courtesy of Wanderer Online Design Editor Janelle Holod
Photography courtesy of Wanderer Online Photography Editor Antony Ta