Why students should vote

Guest Post by Aaron Ettinger

Assistant Professor, University of Waterloo

Ettinger PSCI photo.JPG

We know the purpose of voting: to select a government that reflects the preferences of the people.

However, why we should vote isn’t as self-evident as it seems. Philosophers have argued over this matter for centuries, yet it is still difficult to answer the question. In this election season, we are presented with this fundamental question once again.

Being a student makes answering this question even trickier. Students are often temporary members of the community, and some have no long-term plans in town after graduation. The feeling of being separate from the rest of the community is real. More broadly, 18 to 24-year olds have the lowest turnout rate of any age cohort in Canada. But these considerations shouldn’t discourage students from seeing themselves as full-fledged members of their political community.

Too often, student voters are overlooked by candidates at election time which is a shame. As a group, students have interests that are just as valid as any other community group. This is especially true at the municipal level where housing and public transportation concerns play an outsized role in the life of students.

In the Region of Waterloo, students are a major part of the civic and economic life. Altogether, there are over 70,000 students enrolled at the University of Waterloo, Wilfrid Laurier University, and Conestoga College. An engaged and active student population could have enormous political influence in this town.

In this sense, students should vote so political leaders pay closer attention to their interests.

But we should avoid thinking that voting is only about getting what you want from your elected leaders. When it comes down to it, students should vote for the same reasons as everyone else.

First, it’s our duty as citizens of a democratic society. A democratic society asks that all eligible adults participate in the selection of political representatives. This is the basic act of citizenship and the bedrock of democratic government. And while it is true that one vote may not make a huge difference, each citizen has a role to play in tending to the civic life of the community. It’s easy to forget how fortunate we are to live in a peaceful, prosperous society. Voting and taking your choice seriously is part of the maintenance work for keeping a good thing going.

Second, voting is an opportunity to express your own values and priorities and those you think ought to shape public life. Election campaigns are contests over the values and priorities that shape government. Of course, you won’t always or often find a perfect candidate to match your preferences. But as an approximation, voting is an indispensable way of reflecting the opinions of each individual in the broader community.

The third reason is accountability. Voting is a great way to protect your freedom, your values and your interests. The knowledge that politicians must face the electorate every few years reminds them who they work for. In the end, voting is the first and best guarantor of political accountability. It is difficult to appreciate this point when the population of students turns over entirely in a four-year period. But over time, an engaged student electorate can ensure that this factor does not give permission to politicians to neglect their interests.

Democracy is not automatic and the right to vote shouldn’t be taken lightly. No matter the stakes, voting in municipal, provincial or federal elections is well worth the effort. This is especially true for students who have specific interests right now, and a lifetime of civic participation ahead of them.