Here is a useful suggestion for a vexing problem of voter engagement and specifically the historically low turnout rate in the Ontario election just finished.
This isn’t just an issue for political science academics. It is a problem for all of us, as it threatens the very legitimacy of our governments.
So here is a suggestion: at every polling station, why don’t we set up a box for children to deposit their votes, right next to the official ballot box? Of course, those “votes” would not contribute to the outcome of the election. Rather, they would allow those below the official voting age to begin to understand the importance of voting, and to build an inculcated habit of doing so.
You wouldn’t be able to walk to the polling station with your child without having discussed the election at the dinner table, or in the car when you were driving them to their dance recital.
By the time election day arrived, children would be well acquainted with the issues and the responsibility of voting in a free and democratic society.
Now, this is an idea that I have advanced for years with a spectacular lack of success.
Several objections have been raised to the idea. For example, my own political tribe, the Conservatives, object to it because they think the kids will be brainwashed by left-leaning teachers.
Others argue it would be much easier to just mandate voting and issue fines for nonparticipation, as Australia and others do. Philosophically, I think this idea is rubbish. Surely, thoughtful education and encouragement should trump punishment wherever possible.
Bureaucratic officials say it will be prohibitively expensive to implement. Simply put, this is nonsense. But after all, these objections come from Elections Canada, who can’t even currently administer accessible voting for communities across the country, especially Indigenous ones. All of which points to the feebleness of the bureaucracy. A feebleness which impedes the ability for creative ideas to solve the important challenges before us — challenges which strike at the very core of our democracy.
Efforts have been made to solve this problem. Taylor Gunn at CIVIX and his Student Vote program are doing remarkable work, getting over 260,000 young students to vote in a recent mock youth provincial election. But it isn’t the same.
For decades, Sweden has made mock youth elections an integral part of its democratic process. The country has a remarkably high level of participation, and has continued to strengthen its youth election program in recent years. The latest Swedish election in 2018 saw the highest turnout in 33 years.
To be fair, it’s still unclear how much of that trend can be attributed to youth ballots. Regardless, what the Swedes realize is that the program is key to educating people about democratic principles and engendering politics with a long-term purpose. The experiences of putting serious consideration into politics from a young age — and of being able to see how those considerations might play out several times over before going to the ballot box for real — are invaluable. What’s more, they specifically focus their program on socio-economically disadvantaged areas known for endemic disenfranchisement, something we have a real problem with in Canada.
As any parent will know, no one is better at inspiring good conduct and shaming bad behaviour than their children. I think a democratic equivalent of the campaign to stop smoking or texting while driving will incentivize adults to do better. Children’s frankness might help stipulate against the shenanigans that have crept into our system and turned Canadians off voting.
No longer would there be room for the civically disengaged parent who can’t adequately respond to their child’s new-found political curiosity. Hopefully, it would also give our democracy a longer-term horizon, and encourage our competing politicians to finally prioritize purpose over pugilism.