Electoral Insight – Electoral Participation of Ethnocultural Communities
Making Up for Lost Time: Immigrant Voter Turnout in Canada
Ph.D. candidate, Department of Political Science, University of Toronto
Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Toronto
Professor, Department of Political Science, Université de Montréal
Associate Professor, Department of History and Politics, University of New Brunswick
Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Université de Montréal
Professor, Department of Political Science, McGill University
This article uses data from pooled samples of foreign-born and native-born Canadians from the 1988, 1993, 1997, 2000 and 2004 Canadian Election Studies (CES) to compare the determinants of voter turnout in these groups. There are reasonable grounds for speculating that levels of voter turnout might be different among immigrant Canadians than their native-born counterparts. The evidence presented here paints a more complex picture of voter turnout among immigrants than might otherwise have been expected. The CES data show that similar numbers of foreign-born and native-born Canadians turn out to vote. The data also indicate that the political learning curve is steeper for immigrants, but they do compensate for lost time.
The 2006 Canadian federal election saw a concerted effort by the Conservative Party to gain a greater foothold in a traditionally strong area of Liberal Party support, namely, among immigrant communities. Footnote 1 The strategies of the federal parties in the 2006 election underscored the fact that this large, diverse constituency of voters has not really been at the centre of party competition before. Although nearly one fifth of Canada's population is foreign-born, relatively little is known about the electoral participation of these citizens.
This article explores two questions concerning electoral turnout among immigrants to Canada. First, is voter turnout among immigrant Canadians higher, lower or about the same as that of native-born Canadians? And second, are the factors that explain variations in voter turnout among the foreign-born and native-born the same or are they different? These questions are explored using data from pooled samples of foreign-born and native-born Canadians from the 1988, 1993, 1997, 2000 and 2004 Canadian Election Studies. Footnote 2 The evidence is that immigrants confront a steep political learning curve; they face a shortfall of relevant political experience in the Canadian setting. The data show, however, that immigrants can, and do, make up for lost time.
Facilitative and motivational resources and voter turnout
Most analysts of electoral behaviour concur that voter turnout is determined by a combination of what are called facilitative and motivational factors. "Motivational" factors refer to levels of interest and perceived political efficacy, while "facilitative" factors include such resources as greater income, more education and more experience with politics. The weight of the evidence shows that an abundant supply of these resources increases the likelihood that people will vote. Footnote 3
The question of whether immigrant Canadians, because of these facilitative and motivational factors, turn out to vote in relatively greater or fewer numbers than their native-born counterparts is not a settled one. On one hand, there are reasonable grounds for speculating that voter turnout may be lower among immigrant Canadians than their native-born counterparts. After all, migrants to Canada were socialized in different, sometimes radically different, political systems, and they have less experience than most native-born Canadians with the Canadian political system. For this group of citizens, the political learning curve is consequently much steeper than it is for native-born Canadians and therefore more of a barrier to electoral participation. Many foreign-born Canadians may also lack such socio-economic resources as time and money, which also facilitate political participation.
On the other hand, there is also a straightforward logic pointing to the contrary intuition that immigrant Canadians could be more likely than native-born Canadians to vote. Growing numbers of immigrants come from countries where there was no opportunity to vote, and these immigrants may be less likely than other Canadians to take the right to vote for granted. Moreover, even if many immigrants are short on the time, money and firsthand experience needed to participate in Canadian politics, they are well endowed with the basic cognitive resources that facilitate voting. On balance, immigrants tend to have significantly higher levels of formal education than their native-born counterparts because Canada's immigration policy since 1967 has favoured well-educated migrants and skilled labourers. Footnote 4
Evidence from the Canadian Election Study
University education, high income and political interest have a greater impact on pushing up voter turnout among Canadian-born citizens than among immigrants with similar resources.
The place to begin is with the core finding concerning differences in voter turnout between native-born and foreign-born Canadians. The aggregate evidence is somewhat anticlimactic: it turns out immigrants are neither more nor less likely than native-born Canadians to vote. But just because levels of voter turnout among foreign-born and native-born citizens are relatively similar, it does not follow that the factors that motivate these two groups of citizens to vote or not are necessarily exactly the same. To explore this possibility, we analyze separately the independent effects of age, income, education and interest in the election on voter turnout for immigrants and native-born Canadians. We estimate statistically what the impact of each factor on voter turnout would be, while holding all other characteristics constant: for example, differences in turnout between voters with no high school diploma and those with a university education are estimated assuming that they are the same age, in the same income group and have the same level of interest in the election. Footnote 5
Estimated Impact of Facilitative and Motivational Factors on Turnout
Source: 1988–2004 Canadian Election Studies
These facilitative and motivational resources are a strong determinant of turnout among native-born Canadians, but they exert a far more modest influence on turnout among immigrant Canadians. The estimated independent effects of education, income and political interest on voter turnout among native-born Canadians are robust and statistically significant, and they dwarf the equivalent estimates for immigrant turnout (see Figure 1). Native-born Canadians with university education are about eight percentage points more likely to vote than those with no high school diploma. By contrast, less than a percentage point separates those two groups for immigrants. The differential impact of income on turnout for native-born and foreign-born citizens is less dramatic, but it operates in the same direction: among native-born Canadians, those with high incomes are three and a half percentage points more likely to vote than those with low incomes. Among immigrant Canadians, however, the high/low income voting gap is a meagre one and a half percent. The same pattern holds for interest in politics. Native-born Canadians with a great deal of interest in politics are 33 percentage points more likely to vote than those who are least interested. Once again, among foreign-born Canadians, the corresponding difference is in the same direction but a more modest 22 percentage points. Immigrants from different educational and economic backgrounds, and those with varying levels of interest in politics and elections, turn out to vote in similar numbers.
Estimated Increases in Turnout by Age
Note: The turnout among 20-year-old immigrants is used as the benchmark.
Source: 1988–2004 Canadian Election Studies
A more intriguing picture emerges when the impact of experience with Canadian politics on voter turnout is considered. Footnote 6 For native-born Canadians, age is a perfect measure of exposure: older citizens have simply been exposed to more elections in Canada than younger citizens. For immigrants, of course, age is a less certain measure of exposure to the Canadian system.
By definition, immigrants have prior experience in other countries and the extent of that prior experience may vary from one immigrant to the next. Accumulating exposure to Canadian politics over time is certainly an important determinant of turnout among native-born voters. But the striking finding in this case is that age appears to be an even more powerful predictor of turnout among immigrant voters. By our estimation, the gap in voter turnout between a 20-year-old and a 50-year-old immigrant Canadian is nearly 40 percentage points when all other factors are held constant. By contrast, the gap in turnout between native-born Canadians at those same ages is less than 20 percentage points (see Figure 2).
The well-established trend that younger Canadians are less likely to vote than older citizens is even more pronounced among some groups of immigrant Canadians.
That finding immediately raises another question: why does age matter more to voter turnout among immigrants? There is a well-documented generational divide when it comes to Canadian voter turnout. Not only are younger Canadians less likely to vote than older Canadians, but more recent generations of young Canadians are even less likely to vote than their predecessors at the same age. Footnote 7 Is it possible that the data presented here really reflect generational differences, rather than differences between more and less experience with Canadian elections? The short answer is no. To the extent that there are generational differences, we would expect the negative relationship between age and turnout to be stronger among native-born Canadians rather than foreign-born Canadians: after all, foreign-born Canadians are more likely to have spent their formative years in another country.
Disentangling the effects of experience
Even if the generational hypothesis can be discounted, providing a reliable interpretation of the effect of age on immigrant voter turnout remains a challenge because it is difficult to determine conclusively just what an immigrant's age really measures. Does age indicate accumulated political experience in Canada? Does it represent accumulated political experience in both Canada and in the country of origin? Or does age reflect the moment in the life cycle at which immigrants left the country of origin?
It is entirely plausible that immigrants' total accumulated political experiences, both their experiences in Canada and in their countries of origin, might be an important determinant of whether or not they vote. These different effects clearly need to be disentangled. From one perspective, how well immigrants adapt to the Canadian political system depends on how much exposure they have had to the system: the more experience they have with Canadian elections, for example, the more likely they are to vote. Evidence that voter turnout among a variety of immigrant groups increases with years of residence in the United States certainly supports that line of interpretation. Footnote 8
At the same time, an immigrant's age captures how much pre-migration experience he or she has had. And from a different standpoint, adaptation to the Canadian political system might be more difficult, the greater the amount of time immigrants have spent in the country of origin. Most political predispositions are acquired early in life during the "formative years," and these predispositions deepen over a relatively short period, becoming resistant to change as the formative years end. Thus political orientations developed earlier in life encourage people to avoid or reject environmental messages that are inconsistent with those orientations. Footnote 9 This perspective suggests that the longer immigrants have lived in the country of origin, the less likely it is that they will vote.
An alternative perspective suggests, however, that the shift in environments in which political learning takes place has only a minimal impact on the development of political norms and behaviours. Individuals find ways to effectively draw on the political skills developed in different environments. More specifically, the implication is that immigrants are able to draw on all past experience and transfer the lessons learned from their old environments, applying them to the new host environment. Footnote 10 According to Jerome Black, "more important than the specific context in which political involvement takes place is the question of whether it takes place at all – that is, it is the accumulation of experience with, and interest in, politics per se that is more important." Footnote 11 This perspective implies that age, as a measure of total experience of politics, is what really matters.
Estimated Increases in Turnout by Years of Residence
(immigrant Canadians only)
Note: The turnout among immigrants who have lived in Canada for five years is used as the benchmark.
Source: 1988–2004 Canadian Election Studies
To determine what really drives older foreign-born Canadians to vote in greater numbers than their younger counterparts, we develop a second line of analysis that explicitly takes into account the separate effects of immigrants' age, length of residence in country of origin and length of exposure to the Canadian political system. Footnote 12 These findings show that experience with Canadian politics is the main determinant of turnout among immigrant Canadians (see Figure 3). When age, length of residence in the country of origin, and all of the other variables included in the previous analyses are held constant, time of exposure to Canadian politics has a strong and positive impact on turnout. According to our estimates, the likelihood of voting among immigrants who have been in Canada for 10 years is 15 percentage points higher than the probability of voting among immigrants who have been in the country for only 5 years.
After about 20 years in Canada, the impact of exposure on turnout levels off. Intriguingly, however, neither age nor length of residence in the country of origin has a statistically significant independent impact on turnout.
A steeper learning curve for immigrants
The evidence presented here paints a more complex picture of voter turnout among immigrants than might otherwise have been expected. The Canadian Election Study (CES) data indicate that the political learning curve is steeper for immigrants, but they clearly can make up for lost experience. In the end, lack of exposure to the Canadian political system does little to deter immigrant Canadian voters. However, many of the other resources that usually facilitate and mobilize turnout – socio-economic resources, education and interest in politics – have a weaker impact among immigrants than native-born Canadians.
Immigrants from Asia arrive at the Vancouver International Airport immigration hall.
Immigrants face a number of challenges upon arriving in Canada, and it is certainly understandable that political participation may not be their highest priority. The integration of immigrant Canadians into formal politics, as with native-born Canadians, turns out to be incremental: their stock of first-hand political experience accumulates only gradually. But immigrants face an additional barrier: when they arrive in the country, they have no reservoir of first-hand experience with the Canadian political system from which they can draw. The CES data suggest that immigrant Canadians compensate for that lack of experience more quickly and completely than might be supposed. Even if politics is not a high priority, immigrants eventually do gather enough information to have an idea of when, whether and for whom they should vote.
There are at least two questions about the electoral participation of immigrant Canadians that remain to be answered, however. First, why is it that foreign-born Canadians meet the challenge of a steeper political learning curve when it comes to voting? One important motivation for turning out to vote that could not be measured here is immigrants' feeling that voting is a civic duty. Footnote 13 This sense of obligation may be the crucial determinant of whether or not naturalized Canadians go to the polls, particularly so if immigrants come from countries where democratic rights are fragile at best. A related motivation for turning out to vote could be the desire to "fit in." Immigrants take up the prevailing norms and behaviours of the local community in an active effort to integrate. Footnote 14
The second unanswered question is: why do such other determinants of voting as education, income and political interest matter less for immigrants than for native-born Canadians? One possibility is that because immigrants possess a stronger sense of voting duty than other Canadians, they may be more inclined to vote regardless of their level of interest or their socio-economic status. Another possibility is that strong social ties within immigrant communities help to mobilize turnout. After all, strong community ties are a primary explanation for why African Americans in the U.S. are more politically active than would be expected, given their socio-economic backgrounds. Footnote 15
This article began by noting that such resources as education, income, interest in politics and prior experience with politics are vital to electoral participation. The act of voting is relatively straightforward, but citizens generally require a basic stock of skills and knowledge to participate. As it turns out, immigrants to Canada with low levels of education, income and interest in politics tend to turn out to vote just as much as immigrants who are abundant in those resources. However, one resource, experience with the Canadian political system, is particularly crucial to immigrants. Foreign-born Canadians take full advantage of this resource.
Return to source of Footnote 1 Unweighted preliminary data from the 2006 Canadian Election Study indicate that 50% of immigrants who arrived in Canada after the age of 12 voted for the Liberal Party. In the five federal elections from 1988 to 2004, 48% of immigrants who arrived in Canada after the age of 12 voted for the Liberal Party.
Return to source of Footnote 2 Cases were weighted using the national weight from the five studies. Because we are interested in the effects of pre- and post-migration political learning, the immigrant sample is limited to those who moved to Canada after the age of 12. There are 308, 209, 371, 354 and 437 immigrant cases in the 1988, 1993, 1997, 2000 and 2004 studies, respectively. The studies are funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, with additional funding from Elections Canada (2000–2006) and the Institute for Research on Public Policy (2000). Field work for the studies was conducted by the Institute for Social Research at York University (1988–2006) and Jolicoeur et Associés (2000). The principal investigators are André Blais (1988–2006), Henry E. Brady (1988–1993), Jean Crête (1988), Joanna Everitt (2004–2006), Patrick Fournier (2004–2006), Elisabeth Gidengil (1993–2006), Richard Johnston (1988–1993), Richard Nadeau (1993–2000) and Neil Nevitte (1993–2006).
Return to source of Footnote 3 See Steven J. Rosenstone and John Mark Hansen, Mobilization, Participation, and Democracy in America (New York: Macmillan, 1993); Russell J. Dalton, Citizen Politics: Public Opinion and Political Parties in Advanced Industrial Democracies, 4th ed. (Washington: Congressional Quarterly, 2006); Sidney Verba, Kay Lehman Schlozman and Henry E. Brady, Voice and Equality: Civic Volunteerism in American Politics (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1995).
Return to source of Footnote 4 Peter S. Li, Destination Canada: Immigration Debates and Issues (Don Mills, Ontario: Oxford University Press, 2003).
Return to source of Footnote 5 Estimated probabilities of voting were obtained from Monte Carlo simulations (M=1000) using binary logit estimations. In addition to the variables of interest (age, education, income and interest in the election), geographic location (residence in Vancouver, Toronto, Montréal), gender and year of survey are controlled in each model.
Return to source of Footnote 6 Although additional years of experience are certainly important in social learning, psychologists show that more social learning occurs in earlier years, and experience-based gains in social learning decrease with additional years of experience (see Paul B. Baltes, Ursula M. Staudinger and Ulman Lindenberger, "Lifespan Psychology: Theory and Application to Intellectual Functioning," Annual Review of Psychology Vol. 50 (February 1999), pp. 471–507). It is for this reason that we use the natural log transformations, which assign decreasing weight to additional years of experience.
Return to source of Footnote 7 See, for example, Elisabeth Gidengil, André Blais, Neil Nevitte and Richard Nadeau, "Turned Off or Tuned Out? Youth Participation in Politics," Electoral Insight Vol. 5, No. 2 (July 2003), pp. 9–14.
Return to source of Footnote 8 See John R. Arvizu and F. Chris Garcia, "Latino Voting Participation: Explaining and Differentiating Latino Voting Turnout," Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences Vol. 18, No. 2 (May 1996), pp. 104–128; S. Karthic Ramakrishnan and Thomas J. Espenshade, "Immigrant Incorporation and Political Participation in the United States," The International Migration Review Vol. 35, No. 3 (Fall 2001), pp. 870–909.
Return to source of Footnote 9 See, for example, Leon Festinger, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1957) and John Zaller, The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cambridge University Press, 1992).
Return to source of Footnote 10 See Jerome H. Black, "Immigrant Political Adaptation in Canada: Some Tentative Findings," Canadian Journal of Political Science Vol. 15, No. 1 (March 1982), pp. 3–27; Jerome H. Black, "The Practice of Politics in Two Settings: Political Transferability Among Recent Immigrants to Canada," Canadian Journal of Political Science Vol. 20, No. 4 (December 1987), pp. 731–753; Jerome H. Black, Richard G. Niemi and G. Bingham Powell, Jr., "Age, Resistance, and Political Learning in a New Environment: The Case of Canadian Immigrants," Comparative Politics Vol. 20, No. 1 (October 1987), pp. 73–84.
Return to source of Footnote 11 Black, "The Practice of Politics," p. 739.
Return to source of Footnote 12 The same method of estimation (Monte Carlo simulation using binary logit estimates) is repeated for the immigrant sample, with natural log transformations for years of prior experience in the country of origin and years of experience in Canada incorporated in the model. None of the tolerance coefficients for the logs of age, prior experience or host country experience falls below .10 in this analysis.
Return to source of Footnote 13 André Blais, To Vote or Not to Vote? The Merits and Limits of Rational Choice Theory (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000).
Return to source of Footnote 14 Michael MacKuen and Courtney Brown, "Political Context and Attitude Change," American Political Science Review Vol. 81, No. 2 (June 1987), pp. 471–490; James M. Glaser and Martin Gilens, "Interregional Migration and Political Resocialization: A Study of Racial Attitudes Under Pressure," Public Opinion Quarterly Vol. 61 (1997), pp. 72–86.
Return to source of Footnote 15 Sidney Verba and Norman H. Nie, Participation in America: Political Democracy and Social Equality (New York: Harper & Row, 1972); Carole J. Uhlaner, "Rational Turnout: The Neglected Role of Groups," American Journal of Political Science Vol. 33, No. 2 (May 1989), pp. 390–422.
The opinions expressed are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada.