Despite expectations, early numbers suggest social media hype before Monday’s election did not translate into more young people making it to the polls.
While age-specific stats won’t be available from Elections Canada for weeks, there was only a slight increase in the overall number of Canadians who voted May 2, compared to the last general election in 2008. Predictions about how much social media would drive the youth vote in the 41st general election were overblown, said Dennis Pilon, political scientist at the University of Victoria.
“The challenges of engaging youth in voting are very serious and difficult to overcome,” Pilon said. “Once we get some more concrete data in how this breaks down, I would like to think there’s a least some kind of a modest spike in youth turnout, but I think people should set their expectations low.”
Socio-economics, rather than age, are the biggest factor influencing whether someone votes, Pilon said. The working poor and those not attending university make up the majority of people who forgo their right to vote.
Still, pro-democracy groups say there are reasons to be optimistic. More than 78,000 joined a Facebook page asking young people to pledge that they would vote. The campaign was organized by Apathy is Boring, a non-partisan organization devoted to engaging youth.
“Organizations in Canada need to work better together to get out the youth vote and I don’t think that happened this election campaign,” said Ilona Dougherty, executive director for Apathy is Boring. “It’s really, really hard to mobilize first-time voters and we can’t do it through traditional media, (or) through having events where already-engaged youth show up.”
Apathy is Boring is now following up on those who pledged through the page and is already planning how it will continue to target youth through social media for the next municipal, provincial and federal elections. But if the numbers are to truly increase, Pilon expects it will have to come through more personal connections.
“You can’t fundamentally change politics through a consumer approach,” Pilon said, adding face-to-face conversations between real people is better way to facilitate a new voter’s entry into the political system. “You have to be an organizer, a mobilizer.”
A lack of confidence understanding political process is another voter roadblock, Pilon said. That educational approach is something groups like Apathy is Boring plans to keep working on in the 5.5 million Canadians under 30.
“Nobody wants to be shown up as ignorant or having their lack of knowledge about something exposed,” Pilon said.
From social networking to the polling stations
Through Leadnow.ca and Facebook, the University of Victoria Students’ Society organized a “shuttlemob,” essentially a free bus service to transport students to the advance polls. Organizers were expecting thousands of students to take advantage of the transportation nationally, yet just 15 UVic students made use of the opportunity locally. Since those students might not have voted otherwise, the group viewed the event as a success.
Neither the Camosun College nor the UVic students’ societies held official events on May 2, but James Coccola, outgoing chairperson for the UVSS, personally endorsed the array of informal voter socials planned post-vote, and again, organized through Facebook.
“It’s been really interesting to see just how engaged all of my friends have been through social media,” Coccola said. “I haven’t really ever seen a situation like this before.”