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Electoral Insight - Participation In The Electoral Process

Electoral Insight – January  2001

Youth in the Electoral Process

Jon H. Pammett
Professor, Department of Political Science, Carleton University

One of the most consistent findings in social science research on elections has been that young people choose to vote at lower rates than older citizens. It is common in Canadian federal elections to find a 10 to 25 percent difference in voting turnout between voters under 25 and those over 65.Footnote 1 Thus, while young people are somewhat less likely to vote, this is a difference of degree rather than a fundamental population division on the age factor. Furthermore, when we place the focus on those eligible to vote for the first time by reason of attaining voting age, their turnout rate has not been consistently lower than that of other young people.Footnote 2 It simply appears to be the case that there is an initial period of time after turning 18 when a young person is less likely to take full part in the exercise of the franchise.

Election simulations based on Elections Canada's simulation kits give young students their first experience with voting. Grade seven students enjoy voting and serving as the polling station officials in the garden court of the Bank of Canada, in Ottawa.
Election simulations based on Elections Canada's simulation kits give young students their first
experience with voting. Grade seven students enjoy voting and serving as the polling station
officials in the garden court of the Bank of Canada, in Ottawa.

The causes and consequences of the phenomenon of lower youth electoral participation are very much in dispute. One reaction is simply to attribute the situation to a natural focus of young people on establishing themselves in the realms of education, occupation and relationships, all very time-consuming pursuits. Such a life-cycle explanation predicts that young people will more fully enter the public realm, through voting in elections and participating in politics more generally, when the immediate formative projects just described are established, and when the subjects of politics become more relevant to a newly established family or work situation. This school of thought sees no particular problem in lower levels of youth involvement, as it assumes that political socialization is a life-long process.

To some extent, this point of view is buttressed by scholarly analysis in what is left of the once-flourishing research field of political socialization. Thirty years ago, many theories and researchers' agendas were based on the premise that early learning of political principles by children and adolescents was fundamental to their later beliefs and actions. For a number of reasons, the assumption of the "persistence" of early learning (the so-called "primacy principle") became less persuasive.Footnote 3 Most important, the supposed stability throughout life of patterns of beliefs and behaviours learned in the formative years was questioned by many studies showing how such political orientations were actually subject to considerable variability. In Canada, for example, high degrees of volatility in party identification over short periods of time, together with instability in voting behaviour, made it difficult if not impossible to cling to a model whereby party loyalties were learned from parents and lingered through life for Canadian voters.Footnote 4

In distinction, another view sees lost societal opportunities, and perhaps potential societal problems, in the slow and incomplete integration of young people into politics. Young people are interested in political participation, it can be argued; they are just not interested in choosing among, and working for, conventional political parties. A study done by Raymond Hudon and colleagues at Laval University for the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing shows a good deal of latent or indirect interest of young people in participation.Footnote 5 This manifests itself in a vigorous group life for youth, and also in a concern for community over individual benefits. If youthful enthusiasm and altruism is not accommodated within the appropriate institutions (schools, parties, elections) much will be lost in the way of potentially creative contributions, which involvement could activate.

When political attitudes measuring confidence in institutions and processes are examined within different age groups in the electorate, the resulting relationships are often curvilinear. That is, the youngest age group, those 18-24, is less cynical and distrusting in politics than those immediately older than they are. Thus, tables sometimes show the youngest and oldest age groups (under 25, and over 60, say) looking more like each other than they do to age groups closer to themselves. Neil Nevitte, analyzing data from the World Values Study, shows that, in both Canada and the United States, confidence in government and non-government institutions starts out quite high, dives among those in the 25-34 age-group, and gradually increases thereafter.Footnote 6 At other times, young people show up as more supportive than any other group in the population. For example, a public opinion survey sponsored in 2000 by the Institute for Research on Public Policy in connection with their project on "Strengthening Canadian Democracy" found that the 18-29 age group expressed more satisfaction with democracy, government and politics in Canada than any other age group.Footnote 7 Such findings are supportive of one of the earliest principles of political socialization research – that children often start out with a relatively positive, supportive, even "benevolent" view of political leadership and institutions.Footnote 8

If youth, then, are reasonably supportive of democracy and political institutions, and also by nature desire to participate when such activity can influence the conduct of their own lives, it follows that the lower levels of young peoples' participation in conventional political activity may occur because meaningful participative opportunities are lacking in the world of politics they encounter. It also may be that young people are not taught about politics in such a way as to encourage their direct participation. It seems to me that there are three areas in which political and educational reforms could stimulate the involvement of young people and enhance the scope of democracy in Canada.

1. teach "civics" in a more participative mode

This photo shows mascots serving as candidates, and Elections Canada’s Community Relations Officer Denise McCulloch during an election simulation for families who visited a Montréal shopping centre last Easter.
This photo shows mascots serving as candidates, and Elections Canada’s Community Relations
Officer Denise McCulloch during an election simulation for families who visited a Montréal
shopping centre last Easter.

Curriculum reform has been rife in the elementary and secondary schools of most of our provinces. Regardless of their various motives for promoting such change, politicians and educators are dealing with new curriculum opportunities to teach "civics" to young people. Both Ontario and Quebec, for example, are introducing new citizenship courses in their high schools. But will these involve more than the traditional teaching about constitutions, institutions, rights and duties? More important, will they involve active participation by the students in codifying and articulating political issues and policy alternatives, either in the classroom utilizing simulations, or in the real world of groups and politics? There are some promising signs. The new Ontario Grade 10 civics curriculum segment states that students are required to "participate effectively in a civil action or project of interest to them and of importance to the community (e.g. attend public hearings, plan religious or cultural event, join special interest group, write letters to the editor.)"Footnote 9 If students can become participants in defining issues of interest to them and advancing them through collective action, crucial elements of what Ken Osborne calls the "pedagogy for democratic citizenship" can be established.Footnote 10

Elections Canada has produced two election simulation kits to aid in the education process at both junior and senior levels. The junior kit, designed for children between 5 and 10 years old, takes the students through a simulated campaign for class mascot, and then conducts a vote.Footnote 11 The senior kit, Canada at the Polls!, takes students through the basic process of holding an election, and can be adapted for whatever election the group wishes to hold.Footnote 12 The agency reports that approximately 2 000 kits are distributed to schools each year.Footnote 13 Also available from Elections Canada is an interactive CD-ROM, Exploring Canada's Electoral System, a guided tour of the electoral system through a polling station, the office of a returning officer, Elections Canada's offices, a campaign headquarters and the Chamber of the House of Commons. Since 1998, Elections Canada has received almost 20 000 orders, mostly from schools, for this learning tool.

In addition, voting exercises such as the UNICEF National Election for the Rights of Youth, held in 1999, and the "Our Kids Can Vote" municipal voting exercise, held in Toronto and other cities in November 2000, can usefully involve children in the electoral process through actual participation. In the United States, a massive operation called "Youth e-Vote" organized an Internet ballot of all high school students a week before the presidential election took place. Votes were cast for the actual candidates in the election.Footnote 14

2. reduce the voting age

Simulated voting, while useful, is no real substitute for the actual participation of young people in regular voting. In some countries, most notably Brazil, the voting age has been reduced to 16 years.Footnote 15 Brazil makes voting compulsory for those aged over 18, but optional for 16- to 18-year-olds, and close to a quarter of a million voters in that age category had registered to vote by the time of the 1994 presidential elections.Footnote 16

The possibility of reducing the voting age to 16 in Canadian federal elections was considered by the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing in its 1991 report. In part, this attention was motivated by a concern that establishing the age of 18 as the lower limit of voting eligibility was an arbitrary infringement of section 3 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees every citizen of Canada the right to vote, and section 15, which prohibits discrimination based on age. According to one legal scholar consulted by the Commission, it is not clear how the Supreme Court would evaluate a challenge to attempts by the Government to justify excluding citizens under 18 as being within the "reasonable limits" prescribed in section 1 of the Charter for the curtailment of rights.Footnote 17 Despite this, and despite the conclusion offered in another study that the reduction of the voting age to 16 would be a "low-risk endeavour, in the sense that it would not produce a major impact on the political process and the high schools,"Footnote 18 the Royal Commission concluded that Canadian society was not yet ready for such a change, but that "Parliament should revisit the issue periodically."Footnote 19 Given the overall decline of the voting rate in recent federal elections,Footnote 20 it would be appropriate to revisit the issue now.

3. Make governmental institutions more participative

With the increased concern about public disenchantment with their political representatives in recent years has come renewed interest in ways to involve the public directly in the political process. While "participatory democracy" has always been an important strand of democratic theory,Footnote 21 recent interest in it has often involved the application of new Internet communications technology to the logistical problems of getting the citizenry directly involved with government. On-line discussion and political involvement groups now abound, and most organizations interact with their members through the Internet. With regard to elections specifically, candidate and party Web sites are now de rigueur for campaigns, and on-line voting is being studied by the governments of many countries.Footnote 22

It is well recognized that the leaders in the rapid technological advances of recent years have been young people. It is also commonplace to observe that teenagers often are much more aware of, interested in, and comfortable using the Internet technology that delivers these services, than are their elders. New participative institutions using the Internet are perfectly suited to many of today's youth, and provide a major opportunity to involve them directly in politics and elections.


Footnote 1 In a study the author did for the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing using pooled Gallup Poll data for 1984, the difference was 15 percent. See Jon H. Pammett, "Voting Turnout in Canada," in Herman Bakvis, ed., Voter Turnout in Canada (Toronto, Dundurn, 1991), p. 40. In the 1997 Canadian Election Study, the difference in turnout between under 25s and all older voters was 11 percent, as reported by Tony Coulson in "Voter Turnout in Canada: Findings from the 1997 Canadian Election Study," Electoral Insight - Participation In The Electoral Process , Vol. 1, No. 2 (November 1999), p. 19. My own analysis of a POLLARA post-election survey from 1997 shows a difference of 25 percent between those under 25 and those over 65. Percentage differences can vary depending on the age brackets being compared, since the older age groups report voting at very high rates. In the POLLARA survey, for example, 95 percent of the over-65 age group reported casting a ballot. The overall correlation between age and voting turnout, as measured by Cramer's V, is normally around .2, indicative of a modest, statistically significant, correlation.

Footnote 2 Jon H. Pammett and John Myles, "Lowering the Voting Age to 16," in Kathy Megyery, ed., Youth in Canadian Politics: Participation and Involvement (Toronto: Dundurn, 1991), p. 99.

Footnote 3 David O. Sears, "Whither Political Socialization Research? The Question of Persistence" in Orit Ichilov, ed., Political Socialization, Citizenship Education, and Democracy (New York: Teachers College Press, 1990), pp. 69-97.

Footnote 4 See Harold D. Clarke, Jane Jenson, Lawrence LeDuc and Jon H. Pammett, Absent Mandate: Canadian Electoral Politics in an Era of Restructuring (Toronto, Gage, 1996) and, by the same authors, Political Choice in Canada (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1979).

Footnote 5 See Raymond Hudon, et al., "To What Extent are Today's Young People Interested in Politics? Inquiries Among 16- to 24-Year-Olds," in Kathy Megyery, ed., Youth in Canadian Politics (Toronto: Dundurn, 1991), pp. 3-60.

Footnote 6 Neil Nevitte, The Decline of Deference (Peterborough: Broadview, 1996), pp. 59-61.

Footnote 7 Paul Howe and David Northrup, Strengthening Canadian Democracy: The Views of Canadians, in Policy Matters, Vol. 1, No. 5, July 2000, p. 51.

Footnote 8 Fred Greenstein, Children and Politics, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965).

Footnote 9 Source: Ontario Ministry of Education Web site:

Footnote 10 Ken Osborne, Teaching for Democratic Citizenship (Toronto: Our Schools/Our Selves, 1991) Chapter Three.

Footnote 11 Elections Canada and Elections N.W.T., Choosing Our Mascot (Ottawa: Elections Canada, 1997).

Footnote 12 Elections Canada, Canada at the Polls! (Ottawa: Elections Canada, 1999).

Footnote 13 Denise McCulloch, Community Relations Officer, Elections Canada, personal communication, August 9, 2000.

Footnote 14 Details can be found at

Footnote 15 The voting age in Nicaragua and Cuba is also 16. In Iran, the voting age is 15.

Footnote 16 J. Ray Kennedy, "Painted Faces Are Not Enough," Elections Today, Vol. 6, No. 3.

Footnote 17 Patrice Garant, "Revisiting the Voting Age Issue Under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms," in Kathy Megyery, ed., Youth in Canadian Politics (Toronto: Dundurn, 1991) p. 87.

Footnote 18 Pammett and Myles, op. cit., p. 107.

Footnote 19 Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing, Reforming Electoral Democracy, Volume 1 (Ottawa: Ministry of Supply and Services, 1991), p. 49.

Footnote 20 The 67 percent turnout in 1997 was the second-lowest in the twentieth century. See Elections Canada, A History of the Vote in Canada (Ottawa: Public Works and Government Services Canada, 1997), p. 102.

Footnote 21 See, for example, C. B. Macpherson, The Life and Times of Liberal Democracy, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977); David Held, Models of Democracy (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987); and Benjamin Barber, Strong Democracy, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).

Footnote 22 See Electoral Insight - Participation In The Electoral Process , Vol. 2, No. 1, June 2000, for articles on "Technology in the Electoral Process." Some recent worldwide developments were outlined in The Economist, June 24, 2000, in a special section on "The Next Revolution: Government and the Internet."


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