A crowd of about 100-odd students are gathered in the lobby of Seneca College, where NDP leader Andrea Horwath is talking about student debt and affordability. “I know it’s different now than when I graduated. That’s why we’re planning to convert provincial student loans into grants, and forgive interest on your student loans.” There’s some applause, but many in the audience are staring at their phones, texting, scrolling, seemingly waiting for the event to end.
For the NDP, the millennial vote is crucial. 44 percent of voters between 18 and 34 will likely vote for the NDP, according to an EKOS poll taken a week before the elections — Doug Ford and the PCs, however, have a lead with voters between ages 35 and beyond, which make up a bulk of the electorate.
Getting young people out to vote is the NDP’s “key to victory”, says Sam Merulla, an advisor to the NDP and close friend of Horwath. “I know how active young people are on social media when it comes to talking about politics and expressing their views on politicians, but if they really want to make a difference, I encourage them strongly to come out and vote.”
The 2018 Ontario election has evolved into a race where just two parties — the NDP and PCs — are gunning for the win. Over the weekend, Liberal Party leader Kathleen Wynne conceded defeat, admitting that she would no longer be premier come Thursday. In light of that, and the stark divide in voter preference for the NDP and Conservatives based on age, victory will most likely be decided by who comes out to vote. And for the first time in an Ontario election, there will be more millennial voters than baby boomers.
“If they are engaged and they turn out and vote, and turnout collectively for one party, they can shift the outcome,” polling expert David Coletto of Abacus Data told CBC News recently.
But historically speaking, voter turnout amongst young people has always skewed lower. In the 2011 federal election, voter turnout amongst those aged between 18 and 24 was 38.8 percent, while voter turnout of those aged between 55 and 74 averaged at 73 percent. Presumably because of Trudeau-mania, voter turnout in the 18-24 age bracket was a remarkable 57 percent in the 2015 federal elections, but baby boomers posted a 79 percent turnout rate. Elections Ontario does not track voter turnout by age, but Ontario’s Chief Electoral Officer has said that voter turnout of those in the 18-24 cohort was roughly 30 percent in the last Ontario election.
So why don’t young people vote?
One theory is that they don’t see themselves represented in politics. “I think young people don’t see a point in voting because they don’t see the issues they care about being addressed in the political arena,” says Tara Mahoney, a 24-year-old student at the University of Toronto. Mahoney recently co-authored a blog post arguing that this lack of representation is the reason why youth voters feel alienated from politics — it does not necessarily imply that they are apathetic citizens.
“On a personal level, I don’t think any of them are really talking to us,” Mahoney says of Horwath, Ford and Wynne. “I was at an event where Andrea Horwath was speaking, and she was explaining our struggles to us. That was a weird tactic. All the questions at the event were vetted, and they seemed to be questions she had answered before. I found it incredibly dishonest — Wynne and Ford are guilty of that too.”
"Horwath… was explaining our struggles to us. That was a weird tactic."
But on a policy level, both the Liberals and the NDP have had millennial voters in mind. Under the Wynne government, tuition fees have been waived for students from families with an income of under $50,000 since September 2017. The NDP is pledging to convert all provincial student loans into grants, a plan that is costed out in detail on the party’s website. In the March 2018 budget, the Liberals promised free prescription drugs to those under 24 — the NDP has pledged to extend that policy to every Ontarian. When it comes to child care, all three parties are offering financial incentives, be in in the form of tax rebates or increased investment in child care spaces which would lower the overall cost of child care.
Mahoney agrees that certain key millennial concerns like the cost of tertiary education are being addressed, but she believes that the disconnect lies in the way in which party leaders are communicating to young voters. “When you say you want to fix something, young people want to know how you’re going to do that. We’re looking for substance.”
"Most people don’t just want to see a pdf copy of a party platform on your website."
“I think the bigger issue is, I don’t know if anyone has a really good plan,” says Saleha Haji, a voter in her 30s residing in Toronto’s downtown core. “I hear a lot of big ideas, but no concrete evidence on whether those plans can be achieved or not.”
After the 2015 election, most political pundits were in agreement that the Trudeau campaign’s ability to get young voters out was the determining factor in his victory. The campaign’s relentless social media drive — which included numerous selfie-related hashtags and getting artists like Grimes and Hey Rosetta! to tweet out their support — proved fruitful in engaging the youth vote. Like Horwath and Wynne, the Trudeau team also presented a tediously-costed, admittedly complicated party platform, but he did it alongside a very effective social media campaign.
“I think the bigger issue is, I don’t know if anyone has a really good plan.”
For Mahoney, that did the trick. “I don’t think the Ontario candidates have spent a lot of time on digital communication. Most people don’t just want to see a pdf copy of a party platform on your website.”
As of June 6, a day before the election, CBC’s Ontario Poll Tracker puts the PCs slightly ahead of the NDP in terms of popular vote, and on track to form a majority government. For the NDP then, any hope of Horwath in the Premier’s seat will rest on whether young people actually cast their votes — a gamble, if there ever was one.
“With promises of rent control, public daycare and the conversion of student loans to grants, Horwath has demonstrated her commitment to driving millennial turnout,” wrote political strategist Jaime Watt in a Toronto Star op-ed recently. “But as all too many politicians can tell you, basing a campaign on millennial support is far from a sure bet.”