Electoral Insight – Youth Participation in Elections
Increasing Youth Voter Registration: Best Practices in Targeting Young Electors
Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Calgary
One of the most consistent findings of two generations of research on political behaviour in a broad range of settings is that some citizens are more likely than others to be engaged and involved in politics. If variations in political activity were entirely random, this particular variation could be discounted as perhaps an interesting but insignificant feature of democratic political life. In fact, variation in political activity is anything but random. Some groups of voters are less likely to be involved in politics, and less likely to be involved across a broad spectrum of political systems and settings, than other groups. Among the groups with the lowest levels of participation are those with the lowest economic means, the young, members of the Aboriginal community, and newly eligible electors.
That levels of participation vary systematically, and are much lower among certain groups, raises important questions in a democracy. The assumption in democratic political systems is that political participation serves important functions both for the political system and for the individual. For the system, the participation of citizens results in selection among competing candidates and competing political ideas. In short, it affects the types of policies and issues that are pursued and advanced by government. The groups who participate less will have less impact on the policies pursued or the ideas advanced by government. Consequently, the outputs of government will be less likely to reflect the collective preferences and priorities of such groups of voters.
For the individual, political participation is an expression of belonging to a political community, of having one's say in how one ought to be governed. Political activity can lead to a greater sense of support for the political community and for the elites in positions of power. It gives citizens an increased sense of the legitimacy of the electoral process and of their own roles as members of the political community.
Further to the consistent finding that some electors are less likely to participate in politics is the finding that those same segments of the electorate are less likely to be registered to vote. This has led many election authorities to seek ways of encouraging registration among groups of citizens with historically lower levels of participation. Election authorities typically seek to increase the registration of such electors through targeted registration campaigns, which can vary considerably in the creative means by which authorities attempt to reach these hard-to-reach groups. Even the most aggressive targeted campaigns, however, have limited success in enrolling all members of the electorate.
A related consideration is the desire of the hard-to-reach electorate to register to vote. If members of a group are not inclined to register, even the most ambitious registration effort will produce lower levels of registration among that group than for the electorate as a whole. Consequently, it is common for targeted registration drives to include elements of political education to reduce such disinclination, and to provide positive reasons for the electorate to choose to register. Such campaigns often use symbols and images that are viewed positively by the targeted group, make appeals to the importance of the democratic process, or highlight the power that comes from expressing a political preference (for example, with slogans such as "Make Your Voice Count", or "Make Your Voice Heard", which have been used by a number of election authorities).
Best practices in targeted youth registration
Efforts to increase the registration of young electors are among the most common targeted enrolment strategies used by election authorities. The young often are considered one of the most important segments of the electorate upon which to focus. There are several reasons for this.
- Youth typically have one of the lowest rates of voter registration.
- Youth are often among the most highly mobile segments of the population, moving frequently to enrol in post-secondary education or simply as part of a lifestyle of securing accommodation that changes due to a desire to travel, change jobs, etc.
- They often have not developed a sense of themselves as full members of a political community or a strong stake in their community of residence (as opposed, for example, to homeowners or parents of children in the school system).
- They often have not developed consistent patterns of political participation.
- They represent to a very considerable extent the future citizens of a democracy, and thus their active engagement is tied to the very success of the political system.
For these and other reasons, increasing the political participation and voter registration of young electors is desirable. It is in this context that the Canadian Chief Electoral Officer recently announced initiatives to increase voter registration among Canadian youth. Footnote 1 A variety of instruments are available for a targeted youth registration initiative, some of which have been adopted in Canada and some of which are worthy of consideration by Canada's election authority. The following section describes a number of such targeting strategies.
Canada's Chief Electoral Officer, Jean-Pierre Kingsley, announced measures to address declining voter turnout among youth, at a symposium on electoral participation in Canada held at Carleton University in Ottawa on March 21, 2003.
An obvious method of increasing the registration of electors who are coming of voting age is to extend the effective period in which they can enrol, in particular by adding a year in which they can be placed on a provisional list of electors. This method is used in both Australia and New Zealand, as well as in some U.S. states, and enables young people to complete voter registration forms at age 17. The election authority automatically moves those on the provisional list to the list of electors upon their achieving the age of majority (or legal voting age).
A number of advantages to the provisional register are worth considering. First, it provides the election authority with a considerably longer period of time in which to contact, and be contacted by, those who are coming of voting age. It has been estimated that approximately two percent of the electorate attains voting age every year. It is reasonable to assume that, for any given electoral event, a very large proportion of those who are becoming eligible to vote within three months (for example) of the election would not be included in the register of electors. Therefore, approximately 0.5 percent of the electorate (i.e. those turning 18 in those three months) would need to register during the revision period or on polling day. Providing a provisional register of electors would give these same new electors a full year to be entered in the register, likely decreasing registration activity during the revision period. Also, spreading out the work over a longer period would reduce the spike in the activity of the election authority during the revision period, thereby easing personnel management. Data provided by the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) indicate that approximately 16 percent of 17-year-olds are included on the provisional list and, in the state of Victoria, fully 27 percent of 17-yearolds are on the provisional list. Footnote 2 It is significant that the Victoria Electoral Commission sends birthday cards and enrolment forms to individuals on their 17th birthdays, an issue to which we return below. Footnote 3
School-based registration drives
It has become increasingly popular for targeted youth enrolment activities to include a campaign for university and college campuses. One novel method used in Australia, and related to the existence of a provisional list of electors for 17-year-olds, is to enter into agreements with high schools for registration activities. The election authority pays a small per capita amount of funding to the school, based on the number of students at the school who are on the list of electors. The advantage of this arrangement, coupled with the existence of a provisional list of electors, is that the registration effort can take place in high schools, in addition to universities and colleges. The high school setting is more advantageous, because high school enrolments are much higher than post-secondary enrolments and, therefore, the targeted campaign has a more comprehensive reach. In addition, within high schools, it is possible to introduce a political education campaign into a civics curriculum that is offered to all students, which simply is not possible in post-secondary settings. Without the existence of a provisional list of electors for 17-year-olds, a registration drive in high schools is likely to be much less effective, since a large proportion of students would not be of voting age.
A number of election authorities have developed political education material specifically targeted to increase registration among the youth electorate. In its review of practices of the AEC, the Australian National Audit Office recommended the AEC collaborate with educational authorities to develop curricular materials aimed at increasing the proportion of young electors enrolled. Footnote 4 Elections Canada recently concluded a partnership arrangement with the Cable in the Classroom initiative to encourage youth to prepare public service announcements to promote participation by their peers.
Even without the move to develop a provisional list of electors, and to direct enrolment activities in the high schools, many election authorities have initiated registration activities on university and college campuses. Since most universities include political clubs and also feature a "clubs week" each year (normally during the early fall), one strategy would be to engage these clubs in efforts to publicize voter registration efforts. While this has the advantage of operating within a previously scheduled event, the drawback is that the registration effort of any particular club could be inspired as much by the desire for partisan advantage as by a sense of civic-mindedness in providing equal opportunities for all eligible young electors to register. An alternative, and probably preferable strategy, is to hold such events separate from the political clubs, either on an annual basis, or in the revision period preceding an electoral event. While this strategy has obvious staffing implications for the election authority, some election authorities have found it sufficiently effective to justify the additional expenditure.
There are a variety of ways in which an election authority may become aware that an elector has achieved voting age – for example, through data files shared with a motor transport authority, a tax authority or some other civic authority. In some instances, this information is used to generate a mail-out to electors coming of voting age, which may also include political education material, and possibly a voter registration application. This approach personalizes communication with the elector, provides him or her with information important to a citizen, and also facilitates the completion of the registration process. As a first contact with the newly eligible elector, it also is a very cost-effective strategy, and could be used either with a provisional list of electors (card sent upon reaching 17 years of age), or a regular list (card sent at 18 years). In his March 2003 announcement, the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada indicated that he will send a greeting card or certificate to electors following their 18th birthdays, congratulating them on attaining the right to vote and encouraging them to register.
The Victoria Electoral Commission sends a birthday card to electors on their 17th birthdays, congratulating them on being eligible for the provisional electoral roll, from which they will automatically be placed on the electoral roll upon reaching 18. On June 30, 2002, 16 percent of 17-year-olds in Australia were on the provisional roll, compared to 27 percent of 17-year-olds in Victoria. Similarly, 56 percent of Australian 18-year-olds were enrolled, compared to 68 percent of those in Victoria. Therefore, this initiative appears to account for an increased enrolment of approximately 10 percent of those eligible. Footnote 5
On-line voter registration
The availability of personal computers with very substantial storage capacity, coupled with increasingly reliable network connections with high bandwidth data transmission, and high accessibility to computers in homes, at schools and in many public places (such as Internet cafés, government offices and the like), means that opportunities for an electronically-based voter registration system, or key elements of such a system, are now available in a way that was not the case even a decade ago. Canada is among the most "wired" countries in the world in terms of computer usage, which makes it among the most desirable places to introduce on-line access to voter registration. In view of the fact that young citizens tend to use the Internet more, on-line voter registration systems are likely to be particularly effective in increasing registration among youth.
Various countries provide a range of options for on-line voter registration. At one end of the continuum, Elections New Zealand provides the most direct and interactive on-line voter registration system, at www.elections.org.nz. The elector may receive information about the registration process, check and change his or her registration information, register for the first time, or re-register after leaving the register for a period.
In Australia, while registration forms for all states are available on the AEC Web site, Footnote 6 the elector must first print and complete the form and then send it to the state or district enrolment office through the postal service or by fax, or deliver the form in person. In addition to the extra step of printing and posting the form, Australian enrolment forms require that an elector who is eligible to be enrolled witness the completed form. This latter requirement makes on-line registration much more difficult, particularly since the witness guarantee is provided through the witness' signature. In addition, unlike the New Zealand case, the AEC does not provide electors with the option of checking their registrations on-line. While the electoral roll is considered a public document, it is not available on-line, but rather through the AEC's State Head Office or Divisional Offices. Furthermore, requests to determine whether an elector is enrolled must be made by the elector him- or herself, and must be made in writing, including a signature on the request form. Thus, the high value placed on the security of the electoral roll and the use of strict procedures to guard against potential electoral fraud have, in Australia, limited the full use of on-line registration.
The recently created Electoral Commission of the United Kingdom, as one of its first initiatives, has also put in place on-line voter registration forms for British electors. Footnote 7 As in the Australian case, the forms must be printed and completed, with signature but without a witness, and sent to the district enrolment office. There is no provision for the elector to check his or her registration information on-line, and there is a relatively lengthy period (seven weeks) for the processing of registration information. One of the main reasons for the absence of completely interactive on-line registration is the highly decentralized character of the electoral register. Should the proposal by the Electoral Commission for a national electronic register be realized, the on-line registration system that is limited to making forms available, rather than providing full interactive registration, likely will also be revisited. The recent announcement of the targeted youth registration initiative by Elections Canada suggests a phase-in process. The first phase, similar to the Australian and British cases, will be to provide downloadable forms from the Elections Canada Web site. In addition, Elections Canada has indicated a commitment to seek the means to implement full on-line registration. It can be expected that the latter initiative will have the greatest effect in increasing youth registration.
On April 6, 2003, several thousand young people attended a Rush the Vote block party in Ottawa, which featured many solo artists, bands and speakers who encouraged them to get involved in political and social causes.
A particularly novel approach to contacting young electors is to host events that appeal to that age group, and to weave registration activities into an event that youth are attending for other purposes. This strategy is used in New Zealand. The election authority sponsors music concerts and festivals, at which the host and entertainers encourage attendees to complete voter registration forms that are provided by the election authority at booths or tables. Although information on the cost-per-enrolment for this initiative is not available, a personal communication with an official in New Zealand described it as "highly effective". A variation on this approach would be for the election authority to provide partial sponsorship for the hosting of youth-oriented entertainment events, in exchange for having the contribution acknowledged and the opportunity for the organizers, host and entertainers to highlight registration activity.
Young people in a wide range of countries have long displayed lower levels of participation in conventional, system-supporting political activities such as voting. There are a number of explanations for this pattern – greater residential mobility, less established patterns of voting and weaker attachments to the community, among others. It is likely this pattern will persist. That is not to suggest, however, that one should be complacent. Adjusting administrative arrangements to lead to fewer discrepancies in voter registration, and in political participation, is advantageous to the individual elector and to the political system. While eliminating variation in levels of participation across groups in society may not be an achievable outcome, implementing best practices to mitigate those variations is a sensible strategy for the election authority.
Return to source of Footnote 1 See "Chief Electoral Officer of Canada Announces Measures to Address Decline in Voter Turnout Among Youth" [on-line media release], Elections Canada (March 21, 2003) at www.elections.ca.
Return to source of Footnote 2 Unpublished data provided by Australian Electoral Commission, "Youth Enrolment Statistics: Enrolment by Age as a Percentage of Population, 30 June 2002".
Return to source of Footnote 3 Unpublished data provided by Australian Electoral Commission, "Youth Enrolment" (no date).
Return to source of Footnote 4 "Australian Electoral Commission: Integrity of the Electoral Roll," [on-line report], Australian National Audit Office, Canberra (2002) at www.anao.gov.au.
Return to source of Footnote 5 Unpublished data provided by Australian Electoral Commission, "Youth Enrolment Statistics, 2002."
Return to source of Footnote 6 See Electoral Enrolment Forms at www.aec.gov.au/_content/what/ enrolment/forms.htm.
Return to source of Footnote 7 See www.electoralcommission.gov.uk/your-vote/rollingreg.cfm.
The opinions expressed are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada.