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Electoral Insight – Youth Participation in Elections

Electoral Insight – July 2003

Turned Off or Tuned Out? Youth Participation in Politics

Turned Off or Tuned Out? Youth Participation in Politics

Elisabeth Gidengil
Professor, Department of Political Science,
McGill University

André Blais
Professor, Department of Political Science,
Université de Montréal

Neil Nevitte
Professor, Department of Political Science,
University of Toronto

Richard Nadeau
Professor, Department of Political Science,
Université de Montréal

Young Canadians are turning their backs on electoral politics in unprecedented numbers. The optimistic assumption is that they are turning to other forms of political engagement instead. This assumption is encouraged by the fact that today's young Canadians are much more likely than their parents' or grandparents' generation to have had a university education. The assumption gains credence from media images of young people protesting against globalization or the war against Iraq. What we are seeing, the argument goes, is a new generation of highly educated young Canadians who are frustrated with traditional electoral politics and who are turning to more autonomous forms of political action. However, as this article demonstrates, there is evidence this represents an unduly sanguine reading of the situation.

The deepening divide

Figure 1: Trends in Turnout by Age Group

There is nothing new about lower turnout rates among young people. Detailed study of voter turnout in federal elections since 1968 suggests that the propensity to vote typically increases by 7 or 8 points between ages 20 and 30 and by about 15 points between ages 20 and 50. Footnote 1 Young people are less likely to vote precisely because they are young. Most young people are not going to be particularly concerned about taxes, mortgage rates and access to services, and the political debate that swirls around these issues may seem remote and abstract.

What is new is the widening generational divide. There is something about this generation of young Canadians that makes them less likely to vote than their parents or their grandparents were when they were in their twenties. Turnout was 10 points higher among those born in the 1960s when they were young and 20 points higher among baby boomers when they were the same age. When trends are tracked for the different generations, the pattern is truly striking (see Figure 1). Turnout has held more or less steady for the three older generations; it is only among the young that voting has decreased. What this means is that much of the decline in turnout since 1988 can be attributed to generational replacement. If the four generations had made up the same proportion of the electorate in 2000 as they did in 1988, turnout in the 2000 federal election would have been as much as 10 points higher.

The education myth

Figure 2: Trends in Turnout Among Young Canadians

The declining turnout in this generation is puzzling because it has come at a time when unprecedented numbers of young Canadians continue their education beyond high school. If they are so much more likely to go on to university, why are they so much less likely to vote than their parents or their grandparents? A ready answer has been found in the very fact that they are highly educated. The assumption has been made that these young Canadians are turning away from electoral politics in search of more active forms of political engagement. Because they are highly educated, they aspire to something more meaningful than casting a ballot once in a while.

However, it is a serious misconception to suppose that it is the highly educated young who are failing to turn up at the polls. On the contrary, the more education young people have, the more likely they are to vote. Education remains one of the best predictors of turnout because it provides the cognitive skills needed to cope with the complexities of politics and because it seems to foster norms of civic engagement. Education makes a massive difference to whether young Canadians vote or not. The 2000 Canadian Election Study reveals that turnout in the youngest generation was almost 50 points higher among university graduates than it was among those who left school without a high school diploma. Footnote 2 Furthermore, the decline is confined to those with less than a university education. Since the 1993 general election, turnout has fallen over 30 points among those with less than a high school education and 15 points or more among those who have completed high school and/or some college (see Figure 2). Meanwhile, turnout has held steady among young university graduates.

Knowing little and caring less

A second misconception is that young Canadians are being "turned off" by traditional electoral politics. They are certainly dissatisfied with politics and politicians. Three in five believe that the government does not care what people like them think and two in five believe that political parties hardly ever keep their election promises. However, they are no more dissatisfied than older Canadians. In fact, they are, if anything, a little less disillusioned with politics than their parents and their grandparents are. In any case, political discontent is not a particularly good predictor when it comes to staying away from the polls. Many people who are disaffected with politics choose to vent that frustration by voting against the incumbent. Footnote 3

Young Canadians are not so much "turned off" as "tuned out". They tend to be much less interested in politics than older Canadians and to know much less about what is going on politically. Interest in politics and political knowledge are two of the best predictors of who will vote and who will not. If young Canadians had been as interested in politics and as informed as older Canadians, their turnout in the 2000 federal election would have been 14 points higher.

Figure 3: Knowledge of Party Leaders and Other Political Figures

When they were interviewed right after the 2000 federal election, almost one young Canadian in five was unable to name Jean Chrétien as leader of the Liberal party, and one in two failed to come up with Joe Clark's name when asked to identify the Progressive Conservative leader (see Figure 3). The skeptical might charge that this knowledge test is biased against the young: given how long both men have been active in federal politics, older Canadians have simply had more time to become acquainted with them. However, younger respondents were also much less likely to know the names of the newer party leaders: one in three could not name Stockwell Day as Canadian Alliance leader, and more than half failed to identify Alexa McDonough as leader of the New Democratic Party. Knowing the names of the federal party leaders is not mere political trivia. After all, the leader of the winning party will be Canada's prime minister. At the same time, only two in five could come up with the name of the federal finance minister, and only two in three managed to name their provincial premier. Young Canadians knew even less about the parties' positions than older Canadians. Only one in four could identify the Alliance as being on the right and even fewer could locate the N.D.P. as being on the left. The one factual question on which young Canadians did as well as the older age groups was naming the capital of the United States.

According to the optimistic scenario, however, this low level of knowledge could be just what we would expect if young Canadians are turning their backs on traditional electoral politics. If many of them are finding electoral politics to be irrelevant to their real concerns, perhaps it is hardly surprising that they seem to know so little about it. If this line of argument were correct, we would expect to find much higher levels of knowledge when young Canadians are asked about the issues that are supposed to concern them. This is not so. The sight of young Canadians protesting at economic summits suggests that globalization is exactly the sort of issue that is of special interest to them. In truth, however, their lack of awareness seems to extend to this topic as well. According to a survey conducted in March 2001 for the Centre for Research and Information on Canada, only 57 percent of Canadians born since 1970 had heard anything about globalization, only 53 percent had heard anything about the demonstrations against the World Trade Organization the previous year in Seattle, and a mere 40 percent had heard anything about the upcoming Summit of the Americas in the city of Québec. Footnote 4 On all three questions, awareness was lowest among the young.

Who are the activists?

Young people were among the demonstrators at the April 2001 Summit of the Americas, in the city of Québec.

The third misconception is that young Canadians who are giving up on electoral politics are involving themselves in other ways. In fact, according to the 2000 Canadian Election Study, young Canadians were the least likely to have been active in a voluntary association or community group during the previous five years, and when they had been active, it was typically in a sports association (40 percent). If young Canadians were turning to more meaningful forms of engagement, this should show up in membership of environmental groups. The environment is an issue that matters to young people, and it has hardly been a priority on the country's political agenda. Active involvement in an environmental group might seem to offer a more effective way of working for change. However, young Canadians are no more likely (9 percent) than Canadians in general to have been active in an environmental group. This calls into question the optimistic assumption that declining participation in traditional electoral politics is being offset by greater involvement in grassroots-level activities.

Involvement in protest activities tells a similar story. The activists are actually most likely to be found among the middle-aged, a pattern that holds across national boundaries. Footnote 5 The young are the least likely among Canadians to have been active; more than one in five have engaged in no form of protest whatsoever – even signing a petition or joining in a boycott. To be sure, there is a core of young people who are seeking to effect change by engaging in protest activities. Indeed, this generation ranks second only to their baby-boomer parents when it comes to involvement in three or more different protest activities. But far from turning their backs on more conventional means of making their voices heard, these young activists are more likely than other members of their generation to belong to a political party or to an interest group, and to vote.

It is not really surprising that many of the same young people who fail to vote also fail to get involved in grassroots organizing or protest activities. Involvement presumes a degree of awareness of what is going on in the world. If people do not pay a modicum of attention to the news, issues such as globalization or the environment may simply be "off the radar screen".

The on-line myth

This brings us to the final misconception, namely that the Internet is helping to counteract young Canadians' tendency to tune out of politics. It is certainly true that young Canadians are the most likely to go on-line in search of information about politics. However, the numbers are not very impressive. At the time of the 2000 federal election, less than a quarter of young Canadians reported that they had ever used the Internet to track down political information. Moreover, there was a clear education gradient: the more education they had, the more likely they were to have used the Internet for this purpose (see Figure 4). Almost two in five university graduates had gone on-line to find some information or other about politics, compared with fewer than one in ten of young Canadians without a high school diploma. More to the point, those young people who had used the Internet to obtain political information were also the most likely to be following politics in the traditional media. These Internet users scored fully two points higher on average than the non-users (on a scale from zero to ten) when it came to the amount of attention they paid to television news and/or news in the newspaper.

How can young Canadians be encouraged to vote?

The key to encouraging young Canadians to participate in politics is to get them to "tune in". Political engagement presupposes political interest. If young Canadians are not interested in politics, they are not going to spend much time or energy keeping up with public affairs, and still less participating actively in the country's democratic life. We need to recognize, though, that interest runs both ways. One very tangible form of interest is to have a campaign worker or even a candidate turn up at the door: people who reported being contacted by any of the parties during the 2000 campaign were more likely to vote. This was true of young Canadians, too, but they were the least likely to report being contacted. This suggests that a concerted get-out-the-vote effort on the part of political parties could help to stem the downward trend in voting among the young. A recent study in the U.S.A. points to the importance of getting young citizens to vote for the first time: once they have paid the "start-up costs of voting", young voters tend to keep on voting. Footnote 6

Figure 4: Use of the Internet by Young Canadians to Obtain Political Information (% having ever used)

For the longer term, the single most important step would be to find ways to keep more young people in school. The more education young people have, the more interested they are in politics and the more likely they are to vote, to join groups working for change and to be active in their communities. Canada's dropout rates may not be out of line with other OECD countries, but Canadian dropouts tend to have very low levels of literacy compared to these countries because they typically quit high school at an earlier age. Footnote 7

Education not only equips citizens with the cognitive skills that active engagement requires, it also seems to instill norms of civic obligation. Sense of duty is one of the most powerful incentives for turning out to vote. Footnote 8 However, this sense seems to be diminishing: fewer than one young Canadian in five expressed a strong sense of duty to vote in 2000, compared with one in three of those born before 1945.

Just what has impaired the development of a sense of duty to vote on the part of this generation of young Canadians is unclear, but it may well have something to do with the fact that they were reaching adulthood at a time when disaffection with politics was growing. This disaffection had a number of sources: the rise of a neo-conservative outlook that advocated a smaller role for the state, a perception that governments were relatively powerless in the face of global economic forces, and a series of constitutional crises and failed accords. All of these factors could have combined to produce a disengaged generation that often tunes out politics altogether. But these circumstances are changing. Political disaffection peaked in the mid-1990s and seems to be waning. Meanwhile, security concerns at home and abroad have highlighted the role of the state. One result may be a renewed sense that politics does indeed matter.


Footnote 1 André Blais, Elisabeth Gidengil, Richard Nadeau and Neil Nevitte, "The Evolving Nature of Non-Voting: Evidence from Canada," European Journal of Political Research (forthcoming). For more detailed information on issues covered in this article, see 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), Chapter 3, and Elisabeth Gidengil, André Blais, Neil Nevitte and Richard Nadeau, Democratic Citizenship in Canada (University of British Columbia Press, forthcoming).

Footnote 2 The 2000 Canadian Election Study involved a rolling cross-section campaign survey with a representative sample of 3,651 Canadians, a post-election survey with 2,862 of the campaign survey respondents, and a mail-back questionnaire filled out by 1,535 of the post-election respondents. The campaign survey response rate was 62 percent. The field work was conducted by the Institute for Social Research at York University and by Jolicoeur et Associés. It was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, with additional funding from Elections Canada and the Institute for Research on Public Policy.

Footnote 3 Elisabeth Gidengil, André Blais, Neil Nevitte and Richard Nadeau, "The Correlates and Consequences of Anti- Partyism in the 1997 Canadian Election," Party Politics Vol. 7 (2001), pp. 491–513.

Footnote 4 For details, see the Canadian Opinion Research Archive at Queen's University under CROP Political Survey (March 2001), CROP, Inc., Montréal, Quebec (CRIC0103). Neither the original collector of the data, CORA, nor the relevant funding agency bear any responsibility for the use of the data made here. The results of the survey are analyzed in "Trade, Globalization and Canadian Values," The CRIC Papers Vol. 1 (April 2001), available at

Footnote 5 Pippa Norris, The Democratic Phoenix: Reinventing Political Activism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

Footnote 6 Eric Plutzer, "Becoming a Habitual Voter: Inertia, Resources, and Growth in Young Adulthood," American Political Science Review Vol. 96 (2002), pp. 41–56.

Footnote 7 Canada, Human Resources Development Canada, Applied Research Branch, Dropping Out of High School: Definitions and Costs R-01-1E (Ottawa: Human Resources Development Canada, 2000).

Footnote 8 André Blais, To Vote or Not to Vote: The Merits and Limits of Rational Choice Theory (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000).


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