Sunday, April 05, 2015

On youth outreach

David Akin claims that Canada's political parties should ignore youth turnout in an election year and focus on older citizens who are more likely to vote. But it's worth taking some time to examine the issue in a bit more detail.

At the outset, I'd think there's little doubt Canada's main political parties have a far more sophisticated view of potential voter pools than Akin. Yes, older voters may turn out in larger number as a whole, but all age groups can be split into numerous subgroups based on other demographic subgroups - and there are certainly some younger ones which would have a higher turnout than some older ones.

But let's put that issue aside and ask: what does a political party have to gain in making a strong effort to win younger supporters? And the most important answer arises from exactly the factor which makes Akin think it's worth focusing on older voters alone.

Younger voters may not yet have developed the habit of voting at all. But by the same token, it's equally true that they're less likely to have developed the habit of voting a particular way.

So even for the current election cycle, if a party is calculating the value of outreach efforts based on the likelihood of winning votes, there's a simple trade-off to be made. The value of reaching a voter is presumably defined by how that contact can change in the voter's likelihood of going to the polls, and how it can change the voter's preference as between parties and candidates.

Akin effectively hand-waves away the possibility that participation rates can be improved. But it's not clear that he has any basis for doing so based on the factors which actually affect youth participation rates. The best evidence suggests that younger voters who have contact with candidates and parties are in fact far more likely to make the effort to vote - so a refusal to try may represent little more than a self-inflicted injury.

Moreover, even if one assumes that rates of voting won't change, younger voters will have less-entrenched voting patterns than people who have participated in elections (and formed preferences among parties) over a period of decades. Even if the youth turnout rate is then half that for older voters, that gap could be cancelled out entirely by a proportional willingness to consider a wider range of options rather than following past voting habits.

And that's before we get into the potential spinoff effects of reaching younger voters from a partisan perspective.

For one thing, younger voters figure to be at the point of forming habits for the longer term - meaning that an investment in earning support today is disproportionately likely to offer continued benefits in future campaigns.

What's more, the existence of a large pool of younger non-voters means that a successful pitch may have greater effects in the current election. Given the importance of personal connections in influencing voter behaviour, a single young voter persuaded to take democracy seriously is likely to have at least some impact on friends and family. And the large pool of non-voters means there are far more new votes to be gained than by similarly reaching a single older voter whose personal connections are less likely to be subject to persuasion.

Of course, there are also broader civic benefits in encouraging people to join the voting pool. But even if we assume our political parties place no value on that outcome (which it itself a questionable view, particularly for parties with relative strength among Canada's youth), they still have ample reason to make a strong effort to reach out to younger voters.

For further reading, see Frances Woolley on the disproportionate input political parties receive from older Canadians, David McGrane on the factors shaping youth voting preferences, and RossK on Brigitte DePape's work to mobilize younger voters.

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