Who gives a $#!@? Youth voter apathy and a crisis of democratic faith

Advance polls are open from May 19th to 28th – skip the line and head to your assigned poll station. Don’t know where to go? When? And what to bring? For answers to student-centered (and general!) FAQs on voting, visit ousavotes.ca.


Voter apathy amongst young Canadians has been an increasingly interesting subject for political scientists to study. Young Canadians are becoming the largest demographic group, giving them the ability to significantly affect the outcomes of elections. However, their presence is not felt when the time comes to cast their vote. Reports from Elections Canada found that over 40% of Canadians under the age of 25 chose not to vote as they felt disconnected from politics and didn’t feel candidates represented them at all.(1) Students are often told to vote if they want to see any change, but if no candidates effectively represent their demographic and they don’t feel there is any change in their local communities, what value is there in a vote?


This blog is our search for an answer to the question:


Why should I – as a young person, a student, perhaps a settler, a stakeholder in the fate of Ontario – vote in this upcoming election?



Who cares if I vote?

If you can vote, that’s a pretty big deal. For a huge chunk of Ontario’s history, only a few, powerful folks had the right to cast their ballot on Election Day. Canada was formed in 1867 and inherited the system of responsible government (before responsible government, the real decision-makers for settler affairs in the British colonies were effectively hanging out in Britain with the Queen). So unless you were a man with property and access to a poll, you had no say in who was representing you. And if you were lucky enough to be this kind of dude, you had to announce your vote publicly until 1874, which is when Canada finally got the secret ballot!(2) Seems legit.


Anyway, after many long years of political organizing, women, Indigenous, and other racialized folks – and most recently in 2002, prisoners – did it: we won our right to vote in settler elections.(3) Finally, we could see our own interests represented and lobbied before the state. But sitting here in 2022, not everyone in Ontario seems as invested as our predecessors were in their right to vote – especially not students. So why were they so eager to participate in a system that was never designed for us? 


That is, who cares about having a say in a world that doesn’t seem to even see you?


What’s in a Vote?

We asked a few of our Steering Committee members on why they think it’s important to vote, and the throughline of their responses was the following:


“Voting matters because it is our chance to have a say regarding our political systems and the governmental future of Canada. I vote because I am able to learn more about crucial issues facing my community, and exercise my right to have my voice heard.”


While it is true that voting is supposed to provide us a say regarding our political systems, that isn’t always the case. Our political system has several issues that can’t be fixed solely with my vote; my vote, even if successful in electing the candidate or party of my choice, is still only a seat at a broken table. So maybe it’s an act of interference, maybe it’s purely performative, or harm-reduction, or maybe it’s not worth doing at all.(4) 


But the reality is, that strip of paper in your hand with a list of candidates at the poll, the weight of the mini-sized HB pencil as you mark the space next to some familiar name, the announcement over the TV heralding in your new provincial leader – these moments change the decision-makers sitting at Ontario’s long, colonizing table. 


In the 2019 federal election, of the 2,772,467 eligible voters in the 18-24 age group, only 53.9% of them voted. That is, 1,278,107 youth votes never made it to the ballot box, or just over 3,000 people per riding. That’s enough to change the outcome of an election, enough to sway how the next few years will go: in this way, the vote is a real thing.(5)



Look, we’re not exactly experts on democracy in Ontario or Canada. And we know there are intelligent leaders having productive, technical discussions that address concerns Ontarians have been raising about voting in our province, as well as in the country. Many folks believe in our ability to make something better. And frankly, many folks don’t.


We’re still not sure there’s one good answer for why you should vote. What we’re learning is that having the ability to vote isn’t a right; it’s a responsibility. In choosing not to vote you’re effectively saying you have the privilege to handle the outcomes of an election regardless of who is elected. Unfortunately, not all Ontarians can say the same as each party has policies and long-term visions that can significantly disrupt our lives. It’s valid to feel like the candidates running in your riding are lackluster and don't effectively have a plan to represent you. However, showing up to vote – which includes checking off “abstention” on your ballot – has a huge impact on our democratic system. 


To quote one of the great freethinkers of our time, who calls on us to pull away from the traps of goal-based (or “winner-of-the-election-based”) thinking, “It ain’t about what’s waiting on the other side, it’s the climb.”(6) It ain’t about the party leader you’ll wake up to on June 3rd, because the reality is that the value of the vote in Ontario comes from the very violence that forged our democracy in the first place. 


It’s about how much you’re willing to invest in – really, divest from – your role in the settler-state, and become an accountable, active participant in the history you’re miraculously witnessing and surviving. What do young people have to say about the things that matter to us? Which candidate is fighting for the climate, the education, the culture of a province you can thrive in? 

Visit ousavotes.ca for more information on when and where to cast your ballot for the 2022 Ontario election.



(1) https://www.elections.ca/content.aspx?section=res&dir=rec/part/tud&document=youth&lang=e

(2) https://humanrights.ca/story/the-chaotic-story-of-the-right-to-vote-in-canada

(3) Ibid.

(4) This list was in part informed by perspectives provided in this article by Ashley Courchene, an Anishinaabe legal scholar: https://policyalternatives.ca/publications/monitor/election-2019-moving-beyond-%E2%80%9C-vote-or-not-vote%E2%80%9D

(5) https://www.elections.ca/content.aspx?section=res&dir=rec/eval/pes2019/vtsa2&document=p1&lang=e

(6) The Climb, Miley Cyrus (2009). Admittedly an imperfect analogy.