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Statements and Speeches - Declining Voter Turnout: Can we reverse the trend?

Declining Voter Turnout: Can we reverse the trend?

Marc Mayrand, Chief Electoral Officer of Canada

In the May 2, 2011 federal election, 61.1 percent of registered Canadian electors turned out to cast a ballot. While this is up slightly from the 58.8 percent who voted in 2008, it is a far cry from the 75 percent that Canada averaged in the decades following the Second World War. Even more worrisome, this decline is disproportionately concentrated among the youngest electors. Research shows that voting habits are formed early in life. If young people don't vote now, there is good reason to believe that they will be less likely to become active voters later on. That has implications for the long-term health of our democratic system. But why are young Canadians disengaged from the electoral process? And what can we do about it?

Turnout for young Canadians in the May 2011 election was considerably below the average just 38.8 percent of Canadians aged 18-24 and 45.1 percent of 25-34 year olds voted. A study commissioned by Elections Canada following the election gives new insight into why they are less engaged. The National Youth Survey -- the most comprehensive study yet of 18-34 year-olds -- detailed the motivational and access barriers they experienced. When asked why they did not vote, many participants cited access issues they were too busy, couldn't get to the polls, and didn't know where the polls were but scratching below the surface, the study found that in most cases, the real issue is motivation. In other words, if they were motivated to vote, most youth could overcome these access barriers.

So why aren't they motivated? Many of the young non-voters we surveyed felt that they lacked the knowledge to participate specifically knowledge about the candidates, political parties and their platforms. They were generally less interested in politics, less likely to view voting as a civic duty, and more likely to feel that all political parties were the same and that no party spoke to issues relevant to youth. In contrast, those who knew about and were interested in politics were much more likely to vote, as were those who had discussed politics with their families and importantly those who had been contacted directly by a party or candidate during the election. These results underscore the importance of civic education both in our schools and in our homes in developing the political knowledge, skills and interest that support electoral participation. They also reaffirm the vital mobilizing role that political parties and candidates play in encouraging youth to participate.

Elections Canada has a legislated mandate to conduct voter education and information programs, with a special focus on those who experience difficulties in exercising their democratic rights. One of the ways we do this is by providing tools to support civic education for youth before they reach voting age both during and between elections. Ongoing experiential civic education is critical. A key part of our civic education strategy is to offer a parallel election for elementary and secondary students, coinciding with official election periods. Elections Canada has contracted Student Vote to provide a parallel election program for every federal general election since 2004. Student Vote is a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization that aims to build the capacity and commitment of young Canadians to participate in their democracy. The Student Vote Program combines in-class learning, family dialogue, media consumption and an authentic voting experience. Interestingly, the Student Vote results have predicted the elected government in every federal election program conducted to date.

During the May 2011 federal election, 3,750 schools (nearly one-third of all schools in Canada) participated in the Student Vote Program, with over 563,000 students casting a ballot. A post-program evaluation commissioned by Elections Canada found that the program had positive impacts on students' knowledge of politics and the electoral process, their likelihood of discussing politics with their parents, their interest in politics, and the belief that voting is a civic duty. Teachers and parents were also positively affected by the program. Looking forward, teachers suggested that tools such as simple explanations of party platforms or videos of party leaders addressing students could help to further engage youth.

Moving beyond civic education, what else can be done to prepare young Canadians to assume their roles as engaged citizens? What about those who are already of voting age and can no longer be reached in the classroom? Our research shows that young Canadians are interested in hearing from politicians, who play a vital role in educating youth about politics, and in motivating them to participate in democratic life both during and between elections. Young people who vote are influenced by politicians, especially when they are contacted directly by a party or a candidate during elections. When they feel that parties speak to issues that are relevant to them, they also have more motivation to vote.

All these are pieces of the puzzle. However, we need a concerted effort across the country that allows all of us - parents, educators, youth, politicians, the media and electoral agencies to work together to address and reverse this trend and give young Canadians the tools they need to play an active role in democratic life.

This Opinion Editorial originally appeared in the Feb 6, 2012 edition of The Hill Times newspaper.