Electoral Insight – Youth Participation in Elections
Marketing Voter Participation to the MuchMusic Generation
Account Director, Manifest Communications
On a recent flight to Winnipeg, I was sitting next to a 22-year-old from a small town in Ontario, where he works for an agricultural equipment manufacturer. It was his first time on a commercial airplane and he was a bit nervous about flying. We struck up a conversation and once we got past pleasantries about the weather, flying, and mosquitoes in Winnipeg, we settled on more engaging topics, such as the war in Iraq, SARS and Canadian politics.
I asked my seatmate what he thought of Canadian politicians and whether he voted in the past federal or provincial elections. He informed me that he had not (adding that none of his friends ever thought about voting), and offered the following advice: "We need to go back to the times of ancient Greece, because the Greeks understood what it meant to be democratic. They understood the need to talk to citizens and make politics relevant to the average guy."
His insight highlighted a key to the lack of voter participation among young people: relevance. Young Canadians do not find the act of voting very enticing. And while it is true that a large majority of youth is not very politically and civilly literate, this should not be used as an excuse to avoid the challenge of making politics more engaging to young people. Quite the opposite is true. It is up to governments, non-profit organizations and corporations to help reinvigorate young people's interest in the political system so that voting becomes an expression of their democratic beliefs and actions. Voting, as a recognized form of participatory democracy, must be re-learned. It must become a habit for all young Canadians.
The goal of this article is to provide some ideas on how to re-establish political relevance and lead young Canadians back to the ballot box. The article will explore three main questions: Why aren't young people voting? What can be done to reverse the trend? How should it be accomplished?
Tuned out and turned off: Why young Canadians are not voting
The vast majority of young Canadians (those between the ages of 18 and 24) do not vote. In the last federal election, only 25.4 percent of eligible young voters showed up, the lowest turnout in Canadian history. Footnote 1 The most commonly expressed explanation from journalists, pundits and young people themselves is cynicism – distrust of politicians and a belief that voting will not make a difference. While it is true that cynicism plays a role in declining youth voter turnout, it is not the driving force. In fact, research shows that youth are no more cynical about government or politics than older people. Footnote 2
Lack of political and civic knowledge
One of the key drivers of low youth voter turnout is lack of political and civic knowledge. Several studies have pointed to young people's low levels of awareness about government, politics, history and current events. Footnote 3 A survey in 2000 conducted by the Institute for Research on Public Policy found that over 50 percent of young adults do not follow politics closely. Footnote 4
What has led to this lack of civic knowledge among young people? Schools have not focused enough attention and importance on civics education in the curriculum. Government departments and agencies have not had the necessary financial support to mount wide-ranging multimedia campaigns between elections to promote the importance of voter/civic engagement. Political parties and elected officials have not made major efforts to engage young people in meaningful and ongoing dialogue. Parents are not discussing politics and civic engagement as much as is perhaps necessary. And, finally, youth are not seeking to know more about the political system. The result is that young adults are to a great extent "tuned out" of politics and government, making the relevance of voting a difficult proposition to sell.
Lack of trust and confidence
Other reasons for low voter turnout reflect the "turned off" arguments often cited in the media. It is claimed that young people are not interested in politics and government because they distrust politicians and the political system, and do not believe that their votes will make a difference. For example, in national focus groups conducted for Communication Canada in 2001, the common lament from young Canadians was the lack of political leadership to inspire and help youth to believe there is something and someone worth voting for. Recent government scandals surrounding improper contracting and misuse of money have only helped fuel this perception. The lack of interest is also generated by a perception that government does not understand young people's needs and interests. This was confirmed by Communication Canada's Listening to Canadians: Focus on Young Adults report (2002), which indicated that 70 percent of young adults do not believe that the federal government understands what is desirable to them.
Globalization has also widened the gap between young people and political institutions, negatively affecting voter turnout. In a multimedia universe where information is so prevalent, many young adults are becoming "over-informed and underengaged". The multiplicity of issues, concerns and causes creates a form of paralysis, causing young people to feel there is too much to deal with and not enough time to do anything of real value. Footnote 5
Globalization has also created a world where commercial brands and marketed lifestyles tend to dominate the minds of young adults. Corporations spend more money to shape attitudes and behaviours than governments; as a result, young people have grown up in a marketing-driven, consumer culture, where the relevance of government is marginalized. Molson, Labatt, Roots, Tim Horton's and Canadian Tire are all helping to define what it means to be Canadian. If this situation continues to hold, why should young adults bother to vote, when consumer decisions define the values landscape? While this may be overstated, governments need to become more effective at marketing and communications aimed at young people. Recent findings show that 62 percent of young adults do not believe that the federal government does a good job communicating to them. Footnote 6
Transitional stage of life
Young adults are also naturally less inclined to vote during the transitional stage of life between the ages of 18 and 24. They are busy finding a job, enrolling in university or college, moving out of their parents' houses, travelling, getting married, buying their first homes and having children. They are in a highly mobile, turbulent phase, dealing with the tension of expressing their individuality, while also wanting to fit in and conform. Politics and voting fall low on the priority list of "to-dos".
"Tuned out" and "turned off" young Canadians may not simply be going through a life cycle phase that will improve as they get older, pay taxes and become more rooted in the community. Troubling evidence, highlighted by leading academics (Jon Pammett and Lawrence LeDuc, Brenda O'Neill, André Blais and others), seems to show a "generational" effect. Young adults today are not showing signs of becoming more likely to vote as they age and are, in fact, voting less than their grandparents did when they were the same age. If this holds true, the lack of interest in voting today will affect Canadian democracy for generations to come.
Reversing the trend
The solution to reversing the "generational effect" lies with engaging my Air Canada seatmate and others like him. Selling voter participation to young people requires a different frame of reference. It is about hearts, not minds. It is about a new way of approaching the problem. Small, incremental steps will not suffice. Large-scale behaviour change is needed. Rational arguments that highlight the importance of exercising one's democratic rights will not carry the same weight as values-based arguments and initiatives that speak directly to young people's sense of self and identity. Participatory democracy must become a way of life. Voting must be seen as part of that lifestyle.
Behaviour change occurs not because people suddenly understand more about an issue, but because they want to see themselves differently in relation to it. When Canadians began recycling in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was not because they suddenly understood more about the effects of waste. People began to recycle because a social dynamic was created, in which the Blue Box became the visual badge of being a right-minded citizen. People felt good about contributing positively to the environment and nobody wanted to be the only one in the neighbourhood who was not recycling.
Voter participation requires the creation of a new social norm, so that young people see value in voting and wear their participation in the political process as a badge of their identity.
Creating this new civic norm is a challenge, given that young Canadians are not a homogenous group and efforts aimed at increasing voter participation tend to occur only at election time. Election-driven efforts are likely to motivate only those who are already interested, and may breed cynicism among those who are not. The election period is too short a time to persuade young Canadians that voting is a worthwhile thing to do. This is why the time between elections counts most. That is when political parties, government departments and agencies, non-profits and corporations should be harnessing their resources and talents together to create a new norm for civic participation.
Because of the disconnection between how young people perceive voting and other civic activities, the creation of this norm must be linked to the underlying value of voting. Voting is not seen as part of the same spectrum of activities as volunteering, protesting, giving money to charities or signing petitions. Young people do not value the act of voting as an opportunity or a tool to express and assert their voices. For whom one votes, or whether one's preferred candidate is elected, is secondary to the act of expression, much in the same way that the act of protest is as or more important than the outcome.
Voting also lacks a personal connection because most young Canadians are not aware of and have never met the people who represent them at the municipal, provincial and federal levels. Elected officials are a mystery to young people. There is little understanding of what they do, why they do it and how government works. Part of the reason for this is that, by and large, elected officials do not reach out to young people and if they do, it is usually at election time – a very transparent gesture from the standpoint of the young electorate.
If, as a society, we are interested in encouraging greater voter turnout among young Canadians, efforts have to be made by all sectors and in a way that is relevant to youth. Young people must be encouraged, exposed to and persuaded toward a different approach – one in which they are aware of all the tools of civic engagement at their disposal, and believe that utilizing these tools can make a difference.
Ideas for engaging young voters: A social marketing perspective
Increasing youth voter turnout requires a conscious and deliberate approach to creating social change. From a social marketing perspective, a voter outreach program would involve the following four elements: knowledge generation and understanding, social climate-setting activities, education and outreach, and policy initiatives.
Knowledge generation and understanding
Placing polling booths in areas and at events where young people are likely to be – universities, shopping malls, YMCAs, community centres and concerts – may help improve voter participation.
Reaching young Canadians requires a deep understanding of their attitudes and behaviours. Since they are not a homogenous group, segmentation is key. What motivates a young Aboriginal person in rural Saskatchewan is different from what motivates a middle-class youth from Toronto. Understanding the difference is necessary if voter outreach efforts are to be successful in different parts of the country.
Risk taking is also necessary to better understand what might work with young people. While there have been many studies on participation rates and the reasons for low voter turnout, very little has been done to test innovative techniques to improve voter participation. Easing access to participation through on-line registration and electronic voting may improve participation rates. Placing polling booths in areas and at events where young people are likely to be – universities, shopping malls, YMCAs, community centres and concerts – may help improve voter participation. And efforts by political parties to communicate with young voters through text messaging, e-mail campaigns and face-to-face meetings should also be attempted. None of these initiatives may ultimately be successful, but there is no way of knowing unless governments and political parties are willing to take some risks.
The Web site of the Rock the Vote organization (in the United States) is located at www.rockthevote.org/index2.html.
Rock the Vote in the United States is a good example of creating the right social climate around youth voter participation. Through the use of music and pop culture, the campaign has been able to generate a climate where voting is perceived as something that "cool" people do. Participaction is another example of a social climate-setting campaign that did an excellent job of raising Canadians' awareness of the need to be more active.
We need nothing short of a Participaction campaign for youth voter turnout. Creating the right climate, in which Canadian youth value the act of voting, requires the creation of a new societal norm. How this is accomplished is critical. Motherhood statements about the importance of voting are not acceptable. Rather, breakthrough advertising and programming are necessary to create an energy and momentum with which various segments of the youth population can identify. The message needs to be sent throughout the year and during non-election years. It also should come from an entity at arm's length from government. Young people have to believe in the authors of the message, and currently non-profit organizations have more acceptability than government or corporations for this type of social message. No national non-profit organization exists solely to promote voter participation among Canadian youth, and one should be created.
There are limits to social climate-setting, however. It cannot, on its own, sustain attitudinal and behavioural shifts without local, community-based programs to bring the ideas and values to life. Participaction ultimately failed because it did not have the proper programs on the ground.
Education and outreach
The greatest untapped resource for engaging young people in the political process is young people. Thousands of youth organizations exist throughout the country to influence change at the local, provincial and national levels. Each of these organizations has a constituency of young Canadians that it reaches and with whom it interacts on a frequent basis. Yet very few efforts have been made by government departments and agencies to engage these groups and use them as vehicles to disseminate information and resources that promote voter engagement. Youth round tables should be created to explore better ways to improve voter turnout. Voter education materials tailored to youth organizations should be developed for their use when hosting conferences and running programs.
Elected officials and their political parties need to become more proactive in their outreach toward young people as well. They need to recognize that engaging youth on issues of mutual concern (violence, substance abuse, skill development, etc.) can be very useful in the development of programs and policies that affect their lives. Canadian corporations also have an important role to play, given their strong "brand relationships" with young people. Labatt, VIA Rail, Roots and Bell are only some of the Canadian corporations whose young adult focus and community initiatives should be leveraged to promote voter participation and generate greater momentum.
Classrooms are the other obvious place to engage young people in voter participation. To do so, however, requires new civic materials that promote interactive, engaging, experiential learning. Guest speakers, field trips, simulation games, films, debates and hands-on projects that expose young people to issues and politics in a wide-ranging form will help to generate awareness of the world and community, and help to connect civic engagement with voting in municipal, provincial and federal elections.
Increasing youth voter participation also requires changes in policy to bring about the desired social change. There has been discussion over the past 20 years of reducing the voting age to 16 as an incentive to encourage more young Canadians to engage in the political process. Many have argued that if young people are responsible enough to drive a car at 16, they should be allowed to vote. Exploring this issue, as well as others related to voter registration and on-line voting, are worthwhile endeavours that will generate dialogue and debate among young people.
If young people are old enough to obtain a driver's licence, are they also old enough to vote?
To increase youth voter turnout, all four elements of the social change dynamic outlined above need to happen in an integrated and integrating manner. However, it is essential to create the proper social climate to ensure that other activities are properly supported and momentum is created. To ensure that the proper range and level of activity are taking place, leadership must be seized by an organization that is willing to develop a coordinated plan to incorporate the ideas and resources of players from the public, private and non-profit sectors. Achieving greater civic and political engagement among young people requires a social marketing orientation, if we truly want to reverse the generational effect and forge a more participatory democracy in which voting is a habit among the grandchildren of the MuchMusic generation.
Return to source of Footnote 1 Jean-Pierre Kingsley, keynote address to Symposium on Electoral Participation in Canada, Carleton University, Ottawa, March 21, 2003. The full text is available at www.elections.ca under Media: Special Events.
Return to source of Footnote 2 See Jon H. Pammett and Lawrence LeDuc, "Explaining the Turnout Decline in Canadian Federal Elections: A New Survey of Non-voters" [on-line research report], Elections Canada (March 2003), available at www.elections.ca under Electoral Law & Policy; Brenda O'Neill, "Generational Patterns in the Political Opinions and Behaviours of Canadians," Policy Matters Vol. 2, No. 5 (October 2001); and 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.
Return to source of Footnote 3 See Blais, Gidengil, Nadeau and Nevitte (2002); Paul Howe, "Where have all the voters gone?" Inroads Vol. 12 (winter/spring 2003); and the Centre for Research and Information on Canada (CRIC), "Voter Participation in Canada: Is Canadian Democracy in Crisis?" CRIC Paper #3 (October 2001).
Return to source of Footnote 4 Paul Howe and David Northrup, "Strengthening Canadian Democracy: The Views of Canadians," Institute for Research on Public Policy (2000).
Return to source of Footnote 5 D-Code and the Canadian Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, "Social Vision: Young Adult Perspectives on Social and Civic Responsibility" (April 2001).
Return to source of Footnote 6 Communication Canada, "Listening to Canadians: Focus on Young Adults" (January 2002).
The opinions expressed are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada.