open Secondary menu

Electoral Insight – Persons with Disabilities and Elections

Electoral Insight – April 2004

Canaries, Mine Shafts and the Decline of Voting Among Canadian Youth

Dr. Roger Gibbins
President and Chief Executive Officer, Canada West Foundation

The following is the text of Dr. Gibbins' remarks to the National Forum on Youth Voting, in Calgary, Alberta, on October 31, 2003.

This brief discussion will address three basic questions:

  • Why should we worry about the low and declining voter participation rates among Canadian youth?
  • Whom should we blame?
  • To whom should we direct a public policy response?

In addressing these questions, I should note that I am not speaking from a Canada West Foundation perspective; this is not a field of active research for the Foundation. Nor are the questions ones with a particular regional flavour. I'm speaking, then, more from the perspective of a political scientist with a long-standing interest in citizen participation and democratic governance.

1. Why should we worry about declining participation rates?

Dr. Roger Gibbins, President of the Canada West Foundation, addresses the National Forum on Youth Voting.

There are a number of reasons, some more compelling than others, for identifying low and declining voter participation rates among Canadian youth as a problem. Perhaps surprisingly, one of the least compelling reasons is that the policy outcomes of elections would be different if youth participation rates were higher. It is often assumed, for example, that young voters would bring a different set of policy preferences and political values to the electoral process and would, therefore, push electoral mandates in a different direction. However, the empirical evidence that young Canadians as a block have a unique perspective on the dominant public policy issues of the day is, at best, weak. Moreover, the Canadian electoral system has very limited success in converting the policy preferences of voters to corresponding partisan outcomes; election mandates are more constructed by the winners than they are derived in some objective way from the election results. We, therefore, lack an empirically convincing case that low levels of youth participation matter in the sense of policy outcomes. If no one under 30 voted in the upcoming election, it is not at all clear that the policy mandate of the election would be any different.

A second reason for concern might be that the partisan outcome of elections would be different if youth participated at a higher level. This would be the case if Canadian youth were to bring a different set of partisan preferences to the ballot box, or if they were significantly more likely than their parents or grandparents to be Liberals, New Democrats or Conservatives. Here again, however, the empirical evidence is less than compelling. While age differences in partisanship do manifest themselves from time to time, there is little in the way of systematic differences across elections and leaders. No one party has a lock on the youth vote. Therefore, it is not clear that the partisan outcome of the upcoming election would be different if everyone under 30 stayed home.

It could also be argued that low rates of youth participation further weaken the electoral representation of Canada's urban heartland. The current electoral system, at both the provincial and federal levels, gives disproportionate weight to the rural electorate. While this bias has been diminished somewhat in recent years, we are not even close to the rigorous adherence to the principle of one person, one vote that characterizes the American electoral system. It might be argued, therefore, that if the urban heartland is the heartland of Canadian youth, then low rates of youth participation weaken the urban voice in federal politics. Here I suspect, however, that the effect would be far from pronounced.

A more compelling reason for identifying low rates of youth participation as a problem stems from the assumption that electoral participation provides the foundation for broader participation in democratic politics – that it is the gateway to other, more meaningful forms of political participation. Simply put, if you do not vote, then you are also less likely to follow politics, to get involved in the community and to run for elected office. If this assumption is correct, then low levels of youth voting are troublesome, less in and of themselves, and more in terms of what they predict for other, more important forms of political participation as young Canadians age. And certainly there is correlational evidence pointing to a problem – if individuals do not vote, they are, indeed, less likely to participate in other ways. However, the relationship is not necessarily a causal one. Voting does not automatically trigger other forms of political participation; nor is it a necessary condition for other forms of participation. Canadian youth may – and I stress may – be participating politically in other ways, such as marching in the streets to protest globalization, joining lobby organizations, or mobilizing like-minded souls through the Internet.

Nonetheless, this brings me to the most compelling reason for concern, and that is the possibility that not voting is a manifestation of more general political apathy, of withdrawal from the political community. The relevant analogy here is that of the canary in the mine shaft. In distant times, miners would take caged canaries with them into mine shafts to detect the presence of deadly but odourless gases; if the canaries keeled over in their cages, the miners knew that it was time to beat a hasty retreat. Perhaps, then, we should see young Canadian voters, or more to the point young non-voters, as our canaries in the democratic mine shaft. Their disengagement may well be symptomatic of a deeper sense of malaise in democratic politics that is not restricted to youth alone. However, if this is true, the real problem is the mine shaft, and not the canaries. In other words, Canadian youth, through their lack of electoral participation, are sending a message about the health of democratic politics.

2. If there is, indeed, a problem, what is the cause? Whom should we blame?

During an election, Elections Canada enquiries officers answer thousands of telephone calls every day, many from students and other first-time voters. At the next general election, the agency will provide an enhanced toll-free service, including voice recognition, that will answer many frequently asked questions and quickly refer others to election officers.

I would argue that if we want to explain low rates of electoral participation among Canadian youth, it is imperative to look beyond our youth. For example, the Canadian culture and media carry a persistent message that elections do not count for much, that Parliament is irrelevant, that the courts are now the primary policy-makers in the land. Given this message, it should hardly be surprising that youth are not rushing to the polls. We could also mention the lack of a competitive party system and the related effects of an electoral system that both suppresses diversity and reduces competition (e.g. the federal Liberals in the last election won all but three seats in Ontario with only 50% of the vote). The act of voting itself provides limited incentive for participation; although we have probably the most educated and skilled electorate in the world, all we ask of Canadians in terms of federal politics is to mark a single "X" with a blunt pencil once every four years. Is this an enticement? If voters could click on an "X" on a computer screen, would this be any more of an enticement? Admittedly, such factors should depress levels of electoral participation across the generational continuum. It is by no means clear why they should have a disproportionate effect on young Canadians, unless we assume that older voters are still riding the participatory crest of a prior, golden age of Canadian politics. Nonetheless, it is important to stress that we may be asking the wrong question. Rather than asking why many young people are not voting, perhaps we should be asking why so many are voting, given a political process with so little appeal or relevance. Rather than ask why the young fail to vote, we should be asking why anyone – young or old – does vote. In other words, do not blame the victim.

3. If there is a problem with the electoral participation of Canadian youth, to whom should we direct a public policy response?

This is photograph of a young woman voting at a polling station staffed by a deputy returning officer and poll clerk.

To some degree, this question has already been answered; the roots of the problem may well be found outside the unique characteristics of Canadian youth. We have to throw a wider net. However, we want to ask not only what should we do, but also what can we do to increase rates of electoral participation for young Canadians and, indeed, for all Canadians. Declining rates of electoral participation are not a Canadian problem alone, nor uniquely a youth problem, and it is not clear that there are policy options that can turn this trend around. There are real limits to the reach of public policy. Can public policy produce a more competitive party system? Can it restore the place of Parliament in the political landscape? Can it shift policy power from the courts to parliamentarians?

This does not mean that Elections Canada should throw in the towel in terms of trying to increase the electoral participation of Canadian youth, for it may be possible to address some of the logistical barriers to youth participation. To use another analogy from Shoeless Joe and Field of Dreams, if Elections Canada can build a better stadium, they – Canadian youth – may well come in greater numbers. Certainly we – and not just Elections Canada – should try to build the best possible election stadium. However, while we can try to improve access, and try to build the most comfortable seats, we cannot through public policies affect the quality of the teams or the importance of the outcome.

What this suggests to me is that, in trying to address the problem of youth participation, we should remember the analogy of the canary and the mine shaft. The problem lies with the mine shaft, and not the canary. Therefore, our remedial efforts should be directed to the mine shaft, and not solely to our young canaries.


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