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Electoral Insight – 2004 General Election

Electoral Insight – January 2005

Different Strokes: Why Young Canadians Don't Vote

André Turcotte
Assistant Professor, School of Journalism and Communication, Carleton University

If the "Do Not Vote Party" had run candidates in the 2004 Canadian federal election, it would have formed the Government. Such is the state of political participation in one of the world's oldest democracies, where general apathy and lack of interest are starting to take over the electoral process. On June 28, 2004, about two in five Canadian voters decided to stay home and not to vote. This marked the fourth consecutive election with declining voter turnout.

After the 2000 election, when only 64.1% Footnote 1 of registered voters went to the polls, election officials and politicians took notice and poured efforts and resources into rectifying the situation. For instance, Elections Canada ran an ad campaign during the election specifically targeting young Canadians, to encourage them to vote. Even the Prime Minister made democratic renewal one of his objectives. When Paul Martin officially became Canada's 21st prime minister on December 12, 2003, he stated: "As prime minister, I look forward to the opportunity to rally Canadians toward a new sense of national purpose and around a new agenda of change and achievement ... We are going to change the way things work in Ottawa in order to re-engage Canadians in the political process and achieve demonstrable progress on our priorities." Footnote 2 And yet, the downward trend in voter turnout continued.

The lack of participation in elections is not a problem solely plaguing Canada. After all, we are quick to defend ourselves by pointing out that less than half of American voters participate in their elections. But such a comparison should not bring any solace. As John Kenneth Galbraith once observed, the systematic lack of participation of specific groups of citizens in the electoral process leads to a situation where politicians and political strategists simply ignore the needs and issues of those who fail to participate. They develop electoral platforms designed to reap electoral gains from those likely to vote: white, affluent, older and educated citizens, creating a culture of contentment in which the groups most likely to benefit from government intervention are excluded from policy-making considerations. Footnote 3 This phenomenon is of particular interest in the Canadian context.

Young Canadians who cast a ballot are in the minority, as many members of their generation show little interest in voting.

As André Blais and his colleagues from the Canadian Election Study team have demonstrated, the lack of interest in voting does not affect all Canadians, but is largely confined to a specific group of voters that is slowly disenfranchising itself. As their analysis showed, the single most important point to grasp about the decline in participation since 1988 is that turnout has not declined in the electorate at large, but mostly among Canadians born after 1970. Accordingly, the answer to why turnout was so low in 2000 is that it was being dragged down by the increasing weight of the younger generations, who are less interested in politics than their elders. The implication is that explanations that stress the particularities of the election, like the fact that there was no "real" reason for voting, are not compelling. Footnote 4

The results of the 2004 election proved the prescience of the Canadian Election Study team's assertion. After all, unlike the elections in 1997 and 2000, the 2004 election was a close contest with an uncertain outcome. The close race did little to compel Canadians to go to the polls. As Blais and his colleagues suggested, the bottom line appears to be that the generation born after 1970 is less interested in electoral politics than their elders, they pay less attention, they are less well-informed – and it is not clear at this point that they are turning to other forms of political involvement instead. On a more positive note, the younger generation is no more disaffected with politics than the older cohorts are. The problem seems to be one of disengagement rather than of active discontent. Footnote 5

The aim of this essay is to build on the current understanding of voter turnout in Canada. While previous studies have established who is less likely to vote, we want to understand the reasons why the generations of voters born after 1970 are more likely to stay away from the polls. Based on the results of a national survey conducted by POLLARA with 1,000 adult Canadians in the days immediately following the election, Footnote 6 we will suggest that one of the reasons for low voter turnout resides in the fact that people born after 1970 hold a different set of priorities and interact with the political process differently than older cohorts. We will suggest that differences in priorities, assessments of parties, leaders and candidates, and reactions to campaign dynamics may explain why younger voters are less interested in voting.


Going to the polls at a senior citizens’ complex in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where turnout among older voters is usually high.

On May 23, 2004, Prime Minister Paul Martin asked Governor General Adrienne Clarkson to dissolve Parliament and call a federal general election to be held on June 28. Martin's opening barrage was a nationalistic warning that the Conservatives would make Canada look like the United States. He attempted to frame the key ballot-box question as a stark choice between a Liberal government that would invest billions of dollars a year in health care and social programs, and a Conservative government that would destroy Canada's social fabric with U.S.-style policies that would reduce taxes to rock bottom. Footnote 7 The Conservatives shot back that the Liberal goal was to distract from the corruption evident in the sponsorship scandal. On the second day of the campaign, the main party leaders jostled for position on tax cuts, with Liberal leader Paul Martin pledging not to raise taxes, Conservative Stephen Harper promising deep cuts and N.D.P. Jack Layton promising fiscal responsibility. Footnote 8 On May 25, Paul Martin proposed a $9-billion-plus program for health care, putting forward his campaign's central plank and trying to push the election debate back onto his terms after months devoted to scandals and alleged mismanagement of public funds. Footnote 9 The Conservative platform, aside from its call for tax cuts that would lower tax rates for incomes between $35,000 and $70,000, proposed $500 million in deductions for families with children; an immediate meeting with the premiers to develop a plan on health care; and increased defence spending. Footnote 10

Table 1
Most Important Issues, 2004 General Election*
Issue All voters** % Voters born after 1970*** % Older voters*** %
Health care 32 19 33
Unemployment, jobs 1 1
Economy 3 8 3
Deficit, debt 4 3 4
Taxes 3 6 3
National unity, Quebec, regionalism 1 1
Resources, environment 2 2 2
Social issues 1 3 1
Government, trust, parties' accountability, leaders 18 16 18
Sponsorship scandal 4 1 4
Education 3 11 1
Other 11 8 12
None, don't know 18 23 18

* Question (open-ended): In your opinion, what was the most important issue in the 2004 election?

** weighted results

*** unweighted results

The party leaders were deliberately framing the electoral discourse around the priorities of the Canadian electorate as a whole. As Table 1 indicates, one third of Canadians mentioned health care as the most important election issue, while another 18% cited issues related to trust and accountability, with 4% specifically mentioning the sponsorship scandal. Issues related to the economy (economy as a whole, unemployment, deficit and debt, and taxes) were mentioned by 11% of Canadian voters.

However, some differences can be found between younger and older voters. Voters born after 1970 represent 19.5% of the overall sample and older voters represent 80.5%. While both groups shared the same set of top priorities – health care and accountability – young voters were proportionally less likely to identify health care as their top priority. The same can be said for the sponsorship scandal. Young voters were more likely than older voters to want to hear about economic issues and education. These issues were generally neglected during the election campaign. Hence, given their respective sets of concerns, a campaign focused on health care and the sponsorship scandal was less likely to resonate with young voters than with their older counterparts. If young voters happened to be listening to the electoral discourse, they were less likely than older voters to hear politicians discuss issues they cared about.

Grade 6 student Jeffrey Tran of Bloorlea Middle School, in Toronto, was among more than 263,000 students, in 1,168 schools, who took part in Student Vote 2004. The parallel elections in June, supported by Elections Canada, familiarized those who have not yet reached voting age with the voting process.

Factors in voting choice

Election studies have repeatedly been asking Canadians to identify the most important factors influencing their choice when they vote. The question is formatted to ask first whether party leaders, local candidates "here in this constituency," or parties as a whole were most important in deciding whom to support in the election. Then, a follow-up question asks whether the choice of leader or candidate was motivated by issues or by the personal qualities of the individuals, or in the case of the parties, whether it was the party's "general approach" or stand on specific issues that was most important. This set of variables has been central to the study of voting behaviour. Footnote 11

Table 2 summarizes the findings for the 2004 election. It reports in parentheses the proportion of the leader, candidate and party vote that was motivated by "issues" rather than personal qualities or the general approach of parties. In 2004, half of Canadians cited parties as the most important influence on their choice in voting. Party leaders came in second at 24%, while local candidates had the least impact on the final voting decision. Once again, we can see some clear differences between younger and older voters in terms of degrees of importance given to each factor. Specifically, voters born after 1970 relied more on "the party as a whole" to guide their voting choice than their older counterparts, while paying much less attention to local candidates. However, when young voters looked at their local candidates, they overwhelmingly concentrated on the candidates' stand on issues, rather than their personal characteristics.

Table 2
Most Important Factors in Voting, 2004 Election*
  Party leaders Local candidates Party as a whole
Overall** 24% (60) 20% (49) 50% (51)
Voters born after 1970*** 27% (54) 14% (86) 59% (51)
Older voters*** 25% (61) 22% (53) 52% (51)

* The percentage of respondents who chose each factor because of the issue positions of the leaders, candidates and parties is shown in parentheses.

** weighted results

*** unweighted results

More generational differences can be found in the impact of the campaign on voting choice. As Table 3 shows, 50% of voters had already made up their minds about whom to support by the time the election was called. About one quarter (24%) waited until the campaign began, presumably to find out more about the issues, leaders and parties, before deciding which party to support. One quarter (25%) made up their minds in the final days of the campaign.

Table 3
Time of Voting Decision
  Overall* % Voters born after 1970** % Older voters** %
Before election 42 33 45
When election was called 8 2 9
During the campaign 24 29 23
In the final days 25 37 24

* weighted results

** unweighted results

However, while the campaign had little impact on voting choice for a majority of Canadians – especially older voters – voters born after 1970 took more time to make up their minds and were more likely to be influenced by the events of the election campaign. Particularly striking is the 37% of young voters who decided on their choice of candidate only in the final days of the campaign. We are unable to determine whether those young voters remained undecided until the final days or simply waited until the last minute to focus on their choices. Nevertheless, it is clear that the campaign was more relevant to younger than to older voters.

Table 4
Evaluation of Leaders (on a 1-10 scale)
  Overall* % Voters born after 1970** % Older voters** %
Martin 5.1 4.7 5.1
Harper 4.6 4.7 4.6
Layton 4.6 5.4 4.6
Duceppe 4.5 5.5 4.3

* weighted results

** unweighted results

The final point to be made about the 2004 election pertains to leaders. For the first time since 1984, three of the largest parties had new leaders and leadership was central to the party strategies. Throughout the election campaign, Canadians had the opportunity to observe the new leaders and to pass judgment. The campaign did not leave them unscathed. In the POLLARA study, Canadians were asked to rate their impressions of each party leader on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being "not at all impressed" and 10 being "very impressed"). Overall, the Liberal Martin received the highest rating at 5.1, ahead of the Conservative Harper (4.6), Layton of the N.D.P. (4.6) and Duceppe of the Bloc Québécois (4.5). The first point to be made is that all the leaders garnered low ratings. Between 1974 and 1993, most leaders registered scores at least over the midpoint, Footnote 12 while in 2004 only Martin did so, just barely.

Secondly, it is interesting to note that voters born after 1970 were harsher on the incumbent, but more generous than the rest of the electorate in their assessments of the other party leaders. Of particular interest are the comparatively high ratings received by Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe. We cannot determine the substance of those differences, but the way young voters evaluate leaders is another characteristic that may set them apart from the electorate as a whole.


This analysis aimed to expand on our understanding of voter turnout in Canada. While previous studies have provided a general grasp of who is less likely to exercise the right to vote, we wanted to understand the reasons why young Canadians were those most likely to abstain from voting. Our findings demonstrated that voters born after 1970 hold a different set of priorities and interact with the political process differently than older cohorts.

Specifically, young voters were significantly less likely to identify health care and the sponsorship scandal as their top priorities. They were more likely to want to hear about economic issues and education than were their older counterparts. Voters born after 1970 relied more on "the party as a whole" to guide their voting choice, while relying much less on local candidates. Moreover, while the campaign had little impact on the voting choice of a majority of Canadians, especially older generations, 37% of voters born after 1970 decided for whom they would vote in the final days of the campaign. They also evaluated party leaders differently.

This analysis does not provide the final word on explaining low voter turnout. However, it uncovers some preliminary reasons for low turnout among young voters. Their lack of interest in using their right to vote may not be simply the result of apathy, but a reaction to what parties have been offering them in terms of issue discussions and campaign dynamics. Changing the content of electoral discourse to reach those voters, as well as adjusting campaign dynamics to reflect young voters' decision-making patterns, may be two ways political parties and leaders may attempt to re-engage young voters who currently cannot relate to the electoral process.


Footnote 1 Originally reported by Elections Canada as 61.2%. During subsequent maintenance of the National Register of Electors, the agency removed the names of voters who had died and duplicates arising from moves from the final voters lists of the 2000 general election. Calculations based on the correct number of electors on the lists resulted in the higher national voter turnout of 64.1%.

Footnote 2 As reported on CTV. See transcript, "Paul Martin Sworn in as Prime Minister,", December 12, 2003.

Footnote 3 See John Kenneth Galbraith, The Culture of Contentment (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992).

Footnote 4 See analysis in André Blais, Elisabeth Gidengil, Richard Nadeau and Neil Nevitte, Anatomy of a Liberal Victory: Making Sense of the Vote in the 2000 Canadian Election (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2002), pp. 46–61.

Footnote 5 Blais et al., Anatomy of a Liberal Victory.

Footnote 6 A total of 1,000 telephone interviews were conducted with adult Canadians between June 29 and July 4, 2004. The sample distribution is proportional to the distribution of the Canadian adult population based on the most recent census data. The survey was conducted by POLLARA and donated to the author for academic use. I would like to thank Mr. Michael Marzolini, Chairman of POLLARA, for his generous contribution.

Footnote 7 Heather Scoffield and Campbell Clark, "Martin Waves the Flag," The Globe and Mail, May 24, 2004, p. A1.

Footnote 8 Robert Fife, "Martin Pledges Not to Raise Taxes," The National Post, May 25, 2004, p. A1.

Footnote 9 Heather Scoffield and Campbell Clark, "Martin's Big Pledge: $9-billion for Health," The Globe and Mail, May 26, 2004, p. A1.

Footnote 10 Brian Laghi and Heather Scoffield, "Harper Platform Promises Sweeping Change," The Globe and Mail, June 12, 2004, p. A4.

Footnote 11 See, for instance, Harold D. Clarke, Jane Jenson, Lawrence LeDuc and Jon H. Pammett, Absent Mandate: Canadian Electoral Politics in an Era of Restructuring, 3rd ed. (Toronto: Gage Educational Publishing Company, 1996) and Jon H. Pammett, "The People's Verdict," in Jon H. Pammett and Christopher Dornan, eds., The Canadian General Election of 2000, Chapter 13 (Toronto: The Dundurn Group, 2001), pp. 293–317.

Footnote 12 Clarke et al., Absent Mandate, p. 77.


The opinions expressed are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada.