The idea that young Atlantic Canadians are not turning out at the polls in big numbers is not a new revelation. To be sure, the decline in youth voter participation in the region has been happening steadily for decades.
But the October 2015 federal election represented a sharp turnaround, with young Atlantic Canadian voters (those in the 18-24 age range) turning out in much higher numbers. It was the biggest increase in youth turnout since the 2004 election.
In fact, the regional increase virtually matched the overall increase among young Canadians nationally — that is, jumping some 17 percentage points to an average 57 per cent (up from roughly 40 per cent in the 2011 federal election). Youth voters in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick even saw an increase of 23 percentage points in turnout (especially among young women) — with lesser increases in P.E.I. and Newfoundland.
It’s fair to say that was a result of a keen desire for change, appealing election issues like the legalization of marijuana, increased social spending and electoral reform and an obvious dislike of the governing Stephen Harper Conservatives. It didn’t hurt that the federal Liberal Party fielded a comparatively youthful and esthetically-pleasing Justin Trudeau.
As for the Garden Province, Islanders are well known for their active participation in two key events—namely, election days and wakes. Does that also apply to the younger generation on P.E.I.?
The short answer is yes, at least in terms of the voting part. But it is too early to tell whether a recent trend will turn into a consistent pattern of behaviour.
Although there is no demographic data available from the April 2019 provincial election (it is slated for release in November), the overall outlook is positive. There is every reason to believe that the turnout for young Islanders in the October federal election will continue to rise.
One of the key questions here, I would argue, is what explains the higher turnout. A good part of the explanation can be found in the rise of young voter support for the Green Party of P.E.I. in the last provincial election.
Young voters on P.E.I. are disillusioned with the existing political and public policy landscape. They are tired of the same old, same old way of doing politics on the Island.
Clearly, these 18-24 year olds are desperate for something different — for real and substantive change. That explains, in part, the growth of such civic-minded organizations like Young Voters of P.E.I., the Youth Futures Council and the P.E.I. Coalition for Proportional Representation.
Because the Green vote was concentrated in mostly urban areas of P.E.I., it’s a fair assumption that young people parked their votes with them. The central issues of the campaign for young voters — climate change, affordable housing and electoral reform — would have favoured the Greens as well. Lastly, the attraction of likeable Green Party Leader Peter Bevan-Baker and his perception as the face of real change on P.E.I. was another factor.
What we don’t really know, however, is whether this increase in young voter interest in Atlantic Canada is sustainable over time. I would hazard, though, that there’s a pretty good chance that it will be.
After all, critical challenges like rapid climate change, a dramatically changing job environment and growing economic inequality are certainly not going away any time soon. And as long as young Atlantic Canadians see their future inextricably linked to these vital issues, they know full well that their votes can push governments into meaningful political action.
That means showing up on election day.
Peter McKenna is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown.