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Youth Electoral Participation – Survey and Analysis of Canadian Trends (October 2003)

The question of youth electoral participation is becoming increasingly important as a focus of research, both in Canada and internationally. Elections Canada has contributed to the understanding of this issue through internal research and by commissioning academic studies. The following is a summary of the main findings.

1. Trends in youth turnout

That young people vote at a lower rate than older citizens has been a finding of electoral participation research for some time and has been confirmed by recent studies.1 Moreover, this tendency appears to hold for virtually all established democracies in which the issue has been studied.2

The study by Jon H. Pammett and Lawrence LeDuc commissioned by Elections Canada reveals just how large the gap between the youngest and oldest voters has become. Using a much larger sample of non-voters than most election-related surveys, they found that turnout in the 2000 general election was only 22.4% among 18–20-year-olds, while among the oldest generations (those over 58), it exceeded 80%.3

Until recently, the finding that turnout is lower among youth than among older people was believed to be largely the result of a "life cycle" effect: young people's propensity to vote was found to increase as they aged. Recent studies indicate that this explanation no longer holds. Not only are young people participating less than their elders, their willingness to participate appears to be declining over time.

Brenda O'Neill's study of generational differences in political opinions and behaviour reveals that the rate of reported turnout among the youngest voters dropped significantly between 1988 and 2000.4 Overall reported turnout declined from 88% to 81% during this time, with most of the change occurring within and between the two youngest age groups.5 Such a pattern is not consistent with the "life-cycle" explanation.

This finding was confirmed by André Blais and his colleagues, based on detailed analyses of non-voting behaviour in nine federal elections between 1968 and 2000.6 Average turnout for the six elections held before 1990 was 74%; this dropped to 67% for the three elections after 1990. According to the authors, most of this 7-point drop is the result of a "generational effect". By examining the propensity to vote of successive generations, the authors find that "at the same age:

All in all, age being held constant, the propensity to vote decreases by more than 20 points from the oldest to the most recent cohort."7

Another factor is generational replacement. According to Blais et al., "where post-baby boomers made up a quarter (28%) of the electorate in 1988, they accounted for one half (49%) in 2000. Meanwhile, where the pre-baby boomers made up 35% of the electorate in 1988, they represent only 22% in 2000."8 According to these authors, the implication is clear: if nothing is done to halt or reverse this trend, the situation will only become worse over time.

International research indicates that the problem of low youth turnout is not unique to Canada. In his examination of turnout in nine countries in 1996–97, André Blais concluded that "the two most crucial socio-economic determinants of voting are education and age. The gap between the least and the most educated and between the youngest and the eldest is a huge 20 points."9 More recently, the U.K. Electoral Commission estimated that only 39% of 18–24-year-olds voted in the 2001 general election in Great Britain, compared to 70% of those aged 65. It found low youth turnout to be a primary factor explaining the record-setting low overall turnout of just 59.4% in that election.10

In sum, the finding that young people vote at rates that are significantly lower than those of older generations is well established, both in Canada and abroad. However, whereas age-related turnout differences were once found to be primarily the result of "life cycle" effects, recent findings indicate that they are now more likely to be "generational" in nature: today's young people are not showing signs of becoming more likely to vote as they age. Moreover, each successive generation appears to be less inclined to vote than its predecessors. Together, these trends suggest the recent declines in overall voter turnout will continue into the future.

2. Factors behind declining youth turnout

While various authors use different factors to explain the recent decline in youth turnout, all agree that the problem is multi-faceted.

First, the decline in youth participation does not seem to be principally the result of political cynicism. In fact, research shows that youth are not more cynical about government or politics than are older people. On the contrary, cynicism and feelings of political inefficacy appear to increase with age. This is demonstrated very clearly in Pammett and LeDuc's study: feelings of negativity11 were more often cited as reasons for not voting among those over the age of 25 than among those under 25. O'Neill found that youth aged 18–27 were significantly less likely than older respondents to agree with statements such as: "People like me do not have much say over what the government does."12 She concludes that "although younger Canadians appear to be less politically engaged, this disengagement appears less a conscious decision to turn away from politics than a failure to see the importance of political participation, combined perhaps with a belief that traditional politics may not be providing effective mechanisms for translating desire into action."13

Nevertheless, young people do show an increased tendency toward political apathy. To cite O'Neill, "younger respondents are significantly less likely to pay attention to politics and political news than are older Canadians."14 They are also more likely to find politics uninteresting, even boring. According to Blais et al., "When asked to rate their interest in politics generally, on a 0 to 10 scale, respondents born before [the Second World War] had an average rating of 6.2, compared with only 4.4 for those born since 1970."15

Second, declining youth turnout does not seem to be based on a perceived lack of competitiveness among political parties. Blais et al. found that the perception that there was "no race" in a person's constituency had no significant effect on his/her decision to vote in the 2000 election. They also found that "the younger generation was less, not more, likely to think that there was "no race" in their constituency."16 Similarly, Pammett and LeDuc found that a perceived lack of competitiveness among the parties had no significant impact on the likelihood of voting in the 2000 election.17

Third, some relate declining turnout to the lack of political knowledge among young people. Blais et al. found that "members of the youngest generation are more poorly informed than those of older generations. This is the case whether we look at general knowledge about politics or campaign-specific knowledge."18 Paul Howe agrees: "In effect, two trends have joined together to help produce a sharp decline in turnout among those born in the 1960s and 1970s. First, they know less about politics. And second, their impoverished knowledge is more likely to affect whether or not they vote."19 In this context, Henry Milner finds the level of "civic literacy" – that is, "the knowledge to be effective citizens"20 – to be relatively low in Canada, compared to other Western democracies, despite our high levels of educational attainment.

Fourth, young people have a weaker sense of civic duty than older citizens.21 In the 2000 Canadian Election Study, in response to the statement "If I did not vote, I would feel guilty," only 18% of respondents in the youngest age category expressed agreement, compared with 34% in the oldest cohort.22

As to factors other than beliefs and attitudes, recent studies have found that what may be termed "administrative and personal" factors have some impact on youth turnout. Pammett and LeDuc show that this category of factors – which includes being too busy, absence from the riding on election day, registration problems, illness, lack of knowledge about when or where to vote and moving-related problems – is cited more frequently by 18–24-year-olds than by any other age group except those over 65. They also show that being "on the list" was a significant predictor of turnout in both 1997 and 2000.23 This confirms a previous analysis, conducted by Elections Canada, which found that receiving a correct voter information card was positively related to both age and turnout in the 2000 election.24

Finally, young people may be voting less because election contestants are not contacting them in sufficient numbers. U.S. scholars have shown that mobilization by political parties and candidates is an important element of "get-out-the-vote" strategies.25 In Canada, political party contact has also been found to be significantly related to turnout. According to Blais et al., "everything else being equal, the likelihood of voting increased by five percentage points when someone had been contacted by a political party. Furthermore, ... only 30% of those born after 1970 said they had been contacted, compared with 43% of those born in the 1960s and 50% of those born earlier."26 The U.K. Electoral Commission identified a lack of canvassing by political parties as a likely reason for dissatisfaction (and low turnout) among first-time voters in the 2001 British general election.27

The reasons for declining turnout among young people are many. Low levels of political interest and knowledge, a declining sense that voting is a civic duty, certain administrative difficulties, and limited contact with political parties and candidates are the most frequently identified factors. Clearly, these factors cannot all be addressed in the same manner. For example, political knowledge might be addressed directly by information and education campaigns, both between and during elections. It is also clear that no single actor can respond to every one of these factors. Election administrators, political parties and candidates, educators, civil society organizations – and young people themselves – all have an important role to play.



1 Notable among recent Canadian studies are: André Blais, Elisabeth Gidengil, Richard Nadeau and Neil Nevitte, Anatomy of a Liberal Victory: Making Sense of the 2000 Canadian Election (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2002); and Neil Nevitte, André Blais, Elisabeth Gidengil and Richard Nadeau, Unsteady State: The 1997 Canadian Federal Election (Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 2000). See also Jon H. Pammett, "Youth in the Electoral Process", Electoral Insight Vol. 3, No. 1 (January 2001).

2 See, for example: International IDEA, Youth Voter Participation: Involving Today's Young in Tomorrow's Democracy (Stockholm: IDEA, 1999); The Electoral Commission, Voter Engagement and Young People (London: The Electoral Commission, 2002).

3 Jon H. Pammett and Lawrence LeDuc, Explaining the Turnout Decline in Canadian Federal Elections: A New Survey of Non-voters. Available at:

4 Brenda O'Neill, "Generational Patterns in the Political Opinions and Behaviour of Canadians," Policy Matters Vol. 2, No. 5 (October 2001). Note that the 1988 turnout data she uses are taken from a 1990 survey conducted for the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing.

5 As is almost always the case with survey-based studies, reported turnout here is over-estimated. While the reasons for over-reporting are multiple, the phenomenon appears to affect all age categories similarly, and thus does not substantively bias the results. One notable exception to the problem of over-reporting is the study by Pammett and LeDuc, which achieved an overall reported turnout rate of 61.3% by intentionally over-sampling non-voters.

6 André Blais, Elisabeth Gidengil, Neil Nevitte and Richard Nadeau, "The Evolving Nature of Non voting: Evidence from Canada." Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, San Francisco, 2001. Only the 1972 election is missing from their analysis, as no election study was conducted for that event.

7 Ibid., p. 3.

8 Blais et al. (2002), p. 49.

9 André Blais, To Vote or Not to Vote: The Merits and Limits of Rational Choice Theory (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000), p. 52.

10 The Electoral Commission, Voter Engagement and Young People, p. 6.

11 Negativity is a broad category of attitudes, defined by the authors of this study to include: a lack of faith or confidence in candidates, parties or leaders; regional discontent; insufficient information about candidates, parties or leaders; and a perceived lack of appeal among candidates, parties or leaders.

12 O'Neill, p. 18.

13 O'Neill, p. 32. Note that Blais et al. (2002) also find that cynicism is less pronounced among the young than among older Canadians. However, an Elections Canada analysis of youth electoral participation in the 2000 general election (unpublished, 2001) finds that cynicism is highest among the youngest and oldest age groups, declining somewhat during mid-life.

14 O'Neill, page 11.

15 Blais et al. (2002), p. 52. See also the Centre for Research and Information on Canada (CRIC), Voter Participation in Canada: Is Canadian Democracy in Crisis? CRIC Papers, No. 3 (October 2001).

16 Blais et al. (2002), p. 56.

17 Pammett and LeDuc, Table 17 (variable 9). In the same table, it may be noted that the perception that one's "vote matters" – when combined with the belief that it is "important to vote" (defined by the authors to mean "civic duty") – does have an impact on the propensity to vote (variable 8). However, it is not clear whether this measure is tapping a perception of competitiveness or rather, a more vague notion that somehow, one's vote can make a difference.

18 Blais et al. (2002), p. 53. O'Neill reports a similar finding.

19 Paul Howe, "Where have all the voters gone?" Inroads Vol. 12 (winter/spring 2003). See also Paul Howe, "The Sources of Campaign Intemperance," Policy Options (January-February 2001), where the author argues that low political knowledge among an increasingly large section of the population and simplistic sloganeering by parties and candidates are linked.

20 Henry Milner, "Civic Literacy in Comparative Context: Why Canadians Should be Concerned" Policy Matters Vol. 2, No. 2 (July 2001), p. 7. See also Henry Milner, Civic Literacy: How Informed Citizens Make Democracy Work (Hanover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 2002).

21 See Blais (2000), especially pages 92-113; Pammett and LeDuc (2003), tables 17–20 and 30.

22 Blais et al. (2002), p. 58.

23 Pammett and LeDuc, tables 17 and 18.

24 Elections Canada analysis of youth electoral participation in the 2000 general election (unpublished, 2001).

25 Steven J. Rosenstone and John Mark Hansen, Mobilization, Participation, and Democracy in America (New York: Macmillan, 1993); Sidney Verba, Kay Lehman Schlozman and Henry Brady, Voice and Equality: Civic Voluntarism in American Politics (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995).

26 Blais, et al. (2002), p. 57.

27 Electoral Commission, p. 7.