Photo by Jessica Valeny

Ontario’s provincial party leaders shared centre stage at Ryerson University to discuss ways to improve voter engagement.

Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne, Conservative party interim Leader Vic Fedeli, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath and Green party Leader Mike Schreiner were the featured speakers at Your Vote Matters, a forum hosted by Ryerson’s Faculty of Arts.

The event was not a debate, but a brainstorming session on how to get Ontarians more involved in provincial politics, particularly young people.

Ryerson distinguished visiting professor and Toronto Star columnist, Martin Regg Cohn, moderated the forum. He began the discussion by asking the party leaders why engagement has been so low.

As Cohn reported in his column on Tuesday, 48 per cent of Ontarians voted in the 2011 provincial elections, and 51 per cent voted in 2014. That means that only around half of the eligible voters casted a ballot.

According to Wynne, politicians have a shared responsibility to do everything they can to engage people, such as going to town halls and knocking on doors to talk to people.

“When a young person comes to the door and says to me they’re not going to vote, I go into a ‘Well, if you don’t vote then somebody who looks like me is going to vote for you.’ And that is exactly what happens, older people vote,’ ” she said.

Wynne also said that there are some structural changes politicians need to make, such as registering students to vote before they get out of high school.

“I think university is a good time to have this conversation, but the better time is much earlier so that kids get an understanding of why it’s important that they take part,” she said.

When it comes to youth, Wynne said that they’re always engaged when it comes to the things they care about.

She mentioned the current student-led gun control protests in the United States following the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida as an example of students speaking out.

“That’s a statement of how engaged kids are. Kids are concerned about issues that affect their lives,” she said.

Fedeli said that we need to modernize the way we vote because the process of going to vote can often be time-consuming. The traditional ballot-casting system is what deters young people from voting and should be digitized, he said.

“The way you actually work is not reflected in the way our government system has you voting. You’re not reflected in that,” he said. “You work with tablets and electronic voting. The way you work is completely different than the way our system is set up.”

Photo by Miriam Valdes-Carletti

Fedeli said that not only are voters misrepresented in the way we vote, but also in the politicians we vote for. The youngest MPP today is Sam Oosterhoff, who is 20 years old, but the second-youngest MPP is 38 years old.

Fedeli said that an increase in young politicians could result in an increase in young voters.

Horwath said she gets the sense that people feel like they can’t make a difference anymore, but take to the polls when they see an opportunity for change.

“It’s about listening to what people have to say and reflecting their hope for the future, and giving them something to actually vote for, for a change,” she said.

Horwath also said that young people are tuned in to what’s going on around the world, and the key is to make sure politicians are not just talking at young people, but listening to them. She said that politicians are not reflecting the concerns and hopes of young people.

“Look, I have a son who’s 25 years old. He doesn’t have a full-time job, and he’s living in my basement,” she said. “I know that lots of other young people are worried about their future.”

When asked who to blame for disengagement, Schreiner said that the media, politicians, and the way we conduct politics have to share the blame.

“I am deeply concerned about our civil discourse in terms of how we refer to voters,” he said. “Think of some of the media tropes that are out there. We talk about taxpayers a lot as if we’re only taxpayers, or we talk as if voters are there to harvest votes, or that we’re consumers of government services, rather than actually talking about people as citizens.”

Shreiner also suggested lowering the voting age to 16.

“If you think about it, that’s when your grade 10 civics class is taking place,” he said. “High school students are very engaged during civics. Once you establish that voting habit, that becomes a life-long voting habit.”

Nadia Rosemond, manager at the University of Toronto’s student life and leadership programs, attended the event to learn more about youth engagement. She said she was curious to find out why student voter turnout is so low, such as in Ryerson’s last student union election, and how to increase student interest in politics.

“On each of our campuses, we’re trying to gear up for a couple of elections, not only government elections but also student societies and unions,” she said. “We’re exploring a topic as an institution and trying to encourage students to vote in all elections.”

Ontario’s provincial election will take place on June 7.

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