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Political (dis) Engagement

How politically apathetic are youth in Nova Scotia, really?

by Stephanie Taylor

 Mark Coffin, founder of the Springtide Collective, poses for a photo by the Halifax Waterfront on Dec.6
Mark Coffin, founder of the Springtide Collective, poses for a photo by the Halifax Waterfront on Dec.6
Mark Coffin is the founder of Springtide Collective —a non-partisan organization that advocates for increasing civil literacy and political engagement in Nova Scotia. He recently sat down with the Halifax Media Co-op to discuss some of the ideas around why so many young people in the province seem indifferent towards politics.  

Interview conducted and edited by Stephanie Taylor. 

S: There’s kind of a grave situation we have on our hands. People are constantly talking about how not enough young people are voting. Not enough people are politically engaged. Can you illustrate for me what that situation is like in Nova Scotia?

M: Let’s start with voter turnout because that’s the one that gets the most attention and is the easiest to measure, which often means that it’s the one we refer to as the source of the problem, whereas I frame it more as a symptom of a larger problem. Voter turnout has been on the decline since the ‘60s, since the post-war excitement about the fact that we still get to live in a democracy started to die off. We’ve been on the decline ever since, with little blips up and down. 

Take the last election as an example: In 2013 was the first election where we ran an Elections Act in Nova Scotia that was basically as good as it gets in terms of access to voting. There were a dozen different ways to vote, if you were sick they would come to your house … if you were on a First Nations reserve there were new ways to get that population to vote. We actually put voting stations on every university and college campus across Nova Scotia, so 21 or 22 campuses. The voting stations were there in advance of the regular election for two to five days. And with the around 60,000 students we had in Nova Scotia only 3,500 actually voted at those stations. 

Voter turnout is a trend, there’s a number of way you can interpret it, but the simplest is for one reason or another, voting by young people is not seen as a valuable way of spending your time that’s effective or worthwhile. Arguments based on duty and responsibility, I don’t think are very effective anymore because that can only hold true if exercising that right has something more than a symbolic value. In the last election, slightly over 415,000 people voted and 51 per cent of those people voted for a candidate that did not end up sitting in the legislature, and 55 per cent of people voted for parties that are not the Liberal party, which is the party that has a majority. So that’s a way of demonstrating that it’s arguable how effective your vote is.

S: Was there ever a time when we, as a society, were pleased with our voter turnout and collective level of political engagement, or is that a kind of myth we tell ourselves?

M: The question I would be asking, and I don’t have to answer to it is, is that where we want to go back to? We’re the conditions then (1950s) that contributed to an 80 per cent voter turnout where we want to revert to? To a place where there was much more inequality in terms of opportunity and discrimination, or is there a future where voter turnout might be high as a reflection of some foundational transformational changes to the nature of the democratic system that brings people into it, not forcing them, but sort of incentivizing participation in ways that we don’t have right now that leads to more effective it citizen engagement? 

S: When you were first talking you said you consider lower voter turnout a symptom of a larger problem. Can you elaborate?

M: In the political system it’s very easy for politicians to ignore people who do not come out to vote. It’s also very hard for politicians to entice those people to come out to vote.

So, imagine you’re on a political party and you’re coming up with a campaign platform, and somebody at the back of the room says, ‘I think we should reduce tuition by a half,' which may be a totally valid argument from the research in front of them that says this is a good idea for youth, for Nova Scotia at large, for any number of reasons. There’s going to be somebody else in the room with a more dominant voice in the conversation who will say it doesn’t matter because it’s way more expensive for us to convince young people that's the best solution and try to bring them out to the polls than it is to go to our base --older people who have been with us all along-- and promise them the things that we know they’re looking for because they’re a cheaper vote to earn. Or, they can also say it’s easier to simply attack our opponent because we know that if we spend 'x-amount' on an attack ad that will keep our opponent’s base at home and we don’t have to change anything at all-- let alone promise a new policy on youth or tuition or whatever may be that could very well be good for Nova Scotians.

The system does not depend on any level of turnout for it to continue thriving. Turnout has been declining for 50 years, but we’ve not seen any reduction in the powers of government to make legislation. They’re still able to tax the people who vote, as well as the people who don’t vote, their ability to gain power isn’t so much dependent on share of people who vote, but share of people who vote for them, compared to the other parties.

S: Is there a bit of a confusion between voter turnout and political engagement? Many people consider the two one in the same, would you agree?

M: Definitely not. There’s an organization called Samara you may have come across, which recently did a report last year that measures political engagement by 20 variables. Everything from, ‘did you have a conversation with someone on the phone or in person about a political issue in the last year?' and, 'did you attend a political meeting, did you write a letter to the editor?'. There’s some stats out there that show volunteer engagement and community engagement is on the rise, particularly among young people.

S: Would you, in your definition of political engagement, lump volunteer activity into a form of being politically engaged?

M: No, I wouldn’t necessarily … (But) I think it’s actually a good measure. Consider the presumption that youth are more apathetic these days. When you look at those statistics and see volunteerism is rising or community engagement activities are growing, it shows it’s not an apathy problem, (but) it’s a perception or real problem with the system’s ability to deliver results. 

S: Anytime you hear, ‘political apathy among youth,” the number one solution everyone suggests is education. Can you give me some concrete examples?

M: Good example of what works are a lot of Scandinavian countries put a high focus on experiential learning in teaching about politics, so either bringing a class to the legislature or city council or bringing a city councillor or legislator to the classroom has proven to be really effective tool for maintaining and elevating political interest. Interest is the biggest piece. Kids can learn pretty much anything if they’re motivated, but what are those entry point activities that can pique somebody’s interest enough that they go home and spend a few hours on Wikipedia or YouTube?

S: What kind of measure can universities take to try and foster more political engagement, or foster more literacy as you say?

M: I’ve not thought about the role of the university as much as the public school itself. We’re kind of pushing for this in our Make Democracy Better project. It can’t just be a government priority, it’s got to be a community-level priority. Institutions that are thought of as public institutions have a responsibility. I shy away from a mandatory course in anything, just because I think it’s a bad way to create intrinsic, genuine interest. 

S: How do we begin to kind of cultivate a level of political interest in more marginalized communities? In communities that in the past have felt voiceless or discriminated against by government bodies?

M: I feel totally in-equipped to answer that … I think in many ways going to marginalized communities and saying, ‘get politically engaged’, is a bit like asking someone to go sky-diving and then handing them a parachute with holes in it. I don’t think it’s going to be a nice surprise when they actually get into it and realize, 'maybe we’re not being listened to, maybe there’s no reason to listen to us.' 

S: Last week, a motion was put forward by city council to consider giving permanent residents the ability to vote in municipal elections, what do you think of that?

M: I think it’s a great idea. 

S: Why?

M: I’m not a big fan of invisible boundaries or definitions of citizenship that are restrictive to a certain group of people … (Municipal government) is a great place to do a test of what happens when you expand voting rights. Realistically, we’re all coming from somewhere else anyways … We're not the kind of country that we have an interest in protecting our voter rights, and if people want it and their members of the community, why not?

S: One of the arguments I hear all the time is, ‘well, if we want better voter turnout, if we want better political engagement, why don’t we take a cue from countries that say ‘you’re going to be fined unless you show up to the polls?'” 

M: I’ve never quite understood the motivation why. There are a lot of ways governments are failing. Governments generally (small ‘g’), are failing at providing public services in a meaningful way, and there’s no evidence from what I’ve seen from other countries with mandatory voter turnout, that leads to better public representatives, better public policy, more effective delivery of services or better governance at the day-to-day level. 

The better way to approach it is how to create a system that has something that’s not a fine as an incentive where people say, ‘I’m going to spend my time voting because it produces results, I have confidence in the process, I have confidence that, even if I don’t get my way, the country will be better off because me and everyone I know participated in the election.’ 

I don’t think many people would say that right now about our democratic system. 

Follow: @__stephanietalylor 

This interview was conducted as a part of the Political (dis) Engagement series, which will explore various issues and perspectives surrounding the current political climate in Nova Scotia. 


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