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Electoral Insight – Youth Participation in Elections

Electoral Insight – July 2003

Examining Declining Electoral Turnout Among Canada's Youth

Examining Declining Electoral Turnout Among Canada's Youth

Brenda O'Neill
Assistant Professor, Department of Political Studies, University of Manitoba

A study by the Institute for Research on Public Policy in 2000 found that only slightly more than 40 percent of Canadian 1827-year-olds have an interest in politics.

Without question, young people are not participating in politics to the same degree as previous generations. Footnote 1 This trend has important implications for politics today, as well as in the future, and for society at large, as well as for the youngest generation in particular. A key question generated by the trend is what accounts for it, which is the focus of this article; another is what should be done to reverse it.

Analysis of a survey conducted by the Institute for Research on Public Policy (IRPP) in 2000 Footnote 2 revealed a gap of 25 percentage points in reported turnout for the 1997 election between those aged 1827 and those over 57 years of age (see Table 1). Additionally, research suggests that the dramatic decline in voter turnout in Canada can largely be attributed to Canada's youth. According to Blais and his colleagues, tracking non-voters across the three latest Canadian general elections (1993, 1997 and 2000) reveals that not voting increased only among those born after 1970, and by a significant 14 points. Footnote 3

Differences in political attitudes and participation across age groups are normally accounted for by two distinct phenomena: life-cycle and generational effects. The first identifies the reality that politics achieves greater importance in the middle and later stages of one's life, because of self-interest (political decisions take on greater importance when the risk associated with the outcome increases), or because of an increased sense of responsibility to the community. Generational effects account for changes across generations due to shared common and distinctive experiences in young and early adulthood. Formative experiences, the presence or absence of war, for example, can lead to unique attitudes and behaviours among individuals for whom these are newly developing.

Table 1
Generational Differences in Reported Turnout, 1990-2000
Birth cohort Voting % 1990 Voting % 2000
1973-1982 66
1963-1972 74 69
1953-1962 85 85
1943-1952 93 92
Before 1943 93 91
Total 88 81

Note: Entries are percentage of respondents. The youngest birth cohort in both surveys includes only those respondents of voting age at the time of the election. Data for 1990 are from the Lortie survey [Blais and Gidengil, 2000 (see note 5)] and for 2000 from the IRPP survey [Howe and Northrup, 2000 (see note 2)].

The IRPP survey revealed that life-cycle effects are evident in Canadians' attitudes and participation rates (see Table 1). When 1997 voting turnout was compared to turnout measured in a 1990 survey, a similar pattern emerged, with younger Canadians being less likely to vote than older Canadians in both time periods. Footnote 4 But comparing the 1990 results to the 2000 survey results reveals that generational changes are strong and that increased voting among today's youth over time will not allow the turnout rate to "catch up" to rates previously recorded in Canada. Footnote 5 Much of the reported drop in voting over the 10-year period is accounted for by the lower turnout among those who became newly enfranchised between the two surveys (from 74 percent in 1990 to 66 percent in 2000) and to the drop in turnout among the 19631972 cohort (from 74 percent in 1990 to 69 percent in 2000). Generational effects, then, are outpacing life-cycle effects.

Explaining low youth voter turnout

Evidence of dropping turnout levels among youth in Canada mirrors the trend in other advanced democracies. Footnote 6 Some have been quick to suggest that this is symptomatic of an increased level of cynicism. Canada's youth have tuned out, they insist, because they have little confidence in those entrusted with society's interests. Very visible protests, apparently dominated by young activists, would seem to support such a conclusion. But while levels of political cynicism have increased, a more accurate picture emerges through more careful analysis.

Canada's youth are not more cynical than other Canadians about democracy and politics, and indeed are, in some cases, more satisfied with the workings of the Canadian political system than members of previous generations. As shown in Table 2, when asked whether elected officials "soon lose touch with the people", the youngest Canadians did not reveal themselves to be the most cynical among Canadians. Moreover, when asked how satisfied they are with elections, the youngest age group reveals the highest level of satisfaction of all age groups, 81 percent. Footnote 7

Differences across age groups are apparent, however, in political interest and knowledge (see Table 2). Only 41 percent of 1827-year-olds indicated an interest in politics; this increases with age to 68 percent among those 57 and over. While the ability to correctly identify the Prime Minister differs only slightly among age groups, more than 40 points separate the youngest and oldest groups in their ability to identify the Minister of Finance: 22 percent and 65 percent respectively. Lower levels of both political interest and knowledge have been associated with decreased voter turnout and help to explain increased levels of electoral abstention among Canadian youth. However, it is not clear why this lack of knowledge and limited interest are more pronounced today than in previous generations. This is due in part to the limited attention devoted to the question in Canadian research. Footnote 8

Young Canadians are also more likely to believe that voting is simply not important, with only 75 percent of the youngest respondents in the IRPP survey suggesting that voting was essential or very important (Table 2). Clearly, such attitudes directly shape the likelihood of participating in politics, but again the question remains as to why previous generations were less likely to dismiss the importance of elections at the same stage of life.

Political participation involves more, however, than simply voting. Involvement in political parties has exhibited a similar decline among young Canadians, a trend that is also likely to continue over time. Only two percent of those aged 18 to 27 in the 2000 IRPP survey indicated that they had ever been members of any political party, a drop from eight percent in 1990 among similarly-aged respondents. Footnote 9 Interestingly, the ratio of interest group to political party involvement among young Canadians is much higher than for other Canadians. Among those aged 18 to 27 in the IRPP survey, for every respondent who indicated having been a member of a political party, 4.5 indicated membership in an interest group. In comparison, the interest group to party membership ratio among respondents over 57 years of age was only 0.3 to 1. Thus, while voter turnout might be down among young Canadians, there is reason to believe that traditional partisan politics has also been affected.

Table 2
Political Interest, Knowledge, Importance of Voting and Cynicism, by Age Group, 2000
  % 18-27 years old % 28-37 years old % 38-47 years old % 48-57 years old % over 57 years old
Follow politics very or fairly closely 41 59 58 64 68
Correctly identify the Prime Minister 84 89 93 93 89
Correctly identify the Minister of Finance 22 46 46 61 65
Voting essential or very important 75 85 89 86 91
Those elected to government soon lose touch with the people 71 75 81 70 67
Very or fairly satisfied with elections 81 79 68 66 72

Note: Entries are percentage of respondents responding in the identified category. The second to last row reports those respondents who strongly or somewhat agreed with the statement. Data are from the IRPP survey [Howe and Northrup, 2000 (see note 2)].

Variations in voter turnout among youth

Older Canadians are much more likely than younger ones to follow politics closely.

Examination of reported turnout across demographic and other groups (see Table 3) Footnote 10 reveals that not all young Canadians are avoiding the polls. Low turnout is greatest among those with no post-secondary education, those with low and high family incomes and, to some extent, women. Footnote 11 Variation in reported turnout by levels of political knowledge and interest is, however, much greater. While 81 percent of young respondents with some political interest reported voting in 1997, the rate drops to 55 percent among those reporting little or no interest. Similarly, less than half of respondents who could not identify the Prime Minister reported voting in 1997. In comparison, over 70 percent of those who could identify him went to the polls. Equally revealing is the fact that 88 percent of those who believed that voting was essential reported having voted in 1997; among those who attached little importance to the vote, the reported turnout level drops to 44 percent.

Cynicism, on the other hand, does little to explain low turnout among Canadian youth. As shown in Table 2, there is little difference in the turnout rate between respondents who agree that those elected to Parliament soon lose touch with the people (69 percent) and those who disagree with the statement (72 percent). Similarly, reduced turnout levels are not the result of young people turning away from electoral and partisan politics towards interest group and social group politics. In fact, the turnout rate is higher among those who indicate they have been members of an interest group. Indeed, those who believe that interest groups are the most effective way to work for change are as likely to vote as those who believe political parties are the most effective mechanisms of change.

Concluding reflections

Table 3
Variation in Reported Turnout Among Canadians 22 to 37 Years of Age, 2000
  % voted in 1997 election
High school or less 60 (118)
Post-secondary 71 (322)
Female 65 (241)
Male 71 (203)
Household income  
Less than $30,000 64 (91)
$30,000-$49,000 74 (100)
$50,000-$79,000 79 (95)
Over $80,000 67 (90)
Political interest  
Follow politics very or fairly closely 81 (225)
Not very closely or not at all 55 (214)
Political knowledge  
Identified the Prime Minister 72 (385)
Could not identify the Prime Minister 47 (58)
Political cynicism: Those elected to Parliament soon lose touch with the people  
Agree 69 (307)
Disagree 72 (106)
Importance of voting  
Essential 88 (153)
Very important 64 (207)
Somewhat or not at all 44 (78)
Interest group member  
Yes 82 (49)
No 66 (395)
Most effective way to work for change  
Join a political party 71 (79)
Join an interest group 70 (285)

Note: Entries are percentage of respondents; the number of respondents is indicated in parentheses. Data are from the IRPP survey [Howe and Northrup, 2000 (see note 2)].

How, then, to make sense of these changed patterns of participation among Canada's youth? Young people are less likely to vote because they are less interested in politics, know less about politics and believe less strongly that voting is essential. This explanation does not, however, take us very far, for it begs the question of why this is the case. It might help to consider that political participation depends directly on ability, opportunity and motivation. Footnote 12 We have seen that young people who lack the tools provided by education are voting at lower levels due, perhaps, to the fact that the political system seems remote and complex. But it is not clear why today's young Canadians would find the system any more complex than young Canadians 10 years ago.

Alternatively, limited opportunities for political participation, as reflected in the electoral system's tendency to distort voters' choices in the translation to seat shares, might help to explain increased participation within non-traditional political organizations such as interest groups and social movements. But this helps little to explain drops in electoral participation among young people over time, since there are no fewer opportunities for participation today than in the past. If young people's time is more limited in today's world, however, then perhaps increasing the ease with which they might vote could result in higher participation rates. Footnote 13

In addition, value might come from focusing on motivation – or lack thereof – as an explanation for lower levels of participation among youth. The lack of motivation for voting – that is, no reason or stimulus justifying the expenditure of time and energy, however limited – might help to explain the decreasing turnout rates. André Blais has argued that an important motivation for voting is a sense of duty. Footnote 14 A sense of duty may be thought of as one side of a reciprocal relationship: citizens agree to vote in return for the benefits provided by governments. However, more than 10 years of Canadian governments highlighting the need for fiscal restraint and balanced budgets might have left many young Canadians with less than a clear sense of what exactly governments do for them to deserve their duty in return. The answer to the paradox of falling turnout rates among the young may thus lie outside of factors historically evaluated as explanations for turnout. Instead, the answer may lie in the very success of governments in reducing their perceived responsibility towards citizens.

In the end, however, what is clear is that many, if not most, young Canadians avoid the polls because of political apathy rather than cynicism. They choose not to vote because they see politics and elections as unimportant, rather than because of a strong belief that politicians and politics are not addressing issues of importance to them. This conclusion is reinforced by evidence that the many young Canadians who consider interest groups to be the most effective instruments of political change vote at rates similar to those who consider political parties to be most effective. The challenge is thus twofold: to develop an interest in politics and elections among the current generation of young voters and, second, to commit to fostering just such an interest among the next generation of voters, to arrest any further decline in voter turnout levels.


Footnote 1 Examples include 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); Henry Milner, "Civic Drop-outs? What Young Citizens Know and Don't Know About Politics," paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Boston, Massachusetts, August 26 – September 1, 2002; and my own, "Generational Patterns in the Political Opinions and Behaviour of Canadians," Policy Matters Vol. 2, No. 5 (October 2001).

Footnote 2 York University's Institute for Social Research interviewed 1,278 Canadians for this survey. Full details can be found in Appendix 1 of Paul Howe and David Northrup, "Strengthening Canadian Democracy: The Views of Canadians," Policy Matters Vol. 1, No. 5 (July 2000).

Footnote 3 Blais et al., Anatomy of a Liberal Victory, p. 46.

Footnote 4 O'Neill, "Generational Patterns," pp. 3435.

Footnote 5 This survey was conducted by the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing (the Lortie Commission). See André Blais and Elisabeth Gidengil, Making Representative Democracy Work: The Views of Canadians (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1991).

Footnote 6 See Russell J. Dalton, Citizen Politics: Public Opinion and Political Parties in Advanced Western Democracies, 2nd ed. (Chatham, New Jersey: Chatham House Publishers, 1996).

Footnote 7 One should note, however, that a significant share of respondents in the youngest age group, 43 percent, answered "don't know" to this question. By comparison, only 21 percent among those aged 4857 answered similarly.

Footnote 8 One exception is Paul Howe, "Name That Premier: The Political Knowledge of Canadians Past and Present," paper presented at the annual meeting of the Canadian Political Science Association, Toronto, May 2931, 2002.

Footnote 9 Table 13 in O'Neill, "Generational Patterns," p. 35.

Footnote 10 Table 3 provides reported turnout levels for 1997 for respondents between 22 and 37 years of age across various categories in the IRPP survey (N = 448). The reported turnout rates among those between 22 and 27 years of age and those between 28 and 37 years were 66 percent and 69 percent respectively.

Footnote 11 This examination provides first-order differences in turnout. A more rigorous analysis would control for the impact of various factors on these relationships and could result in different conclusions. Women, for instance, report lower levels of political interest than men and controlling for this difference could lead to disappearance of the gender gap in reported turnout.

Footnote 12 See Patrick Fournier, "The Uninformed Canadian Voter" in Joanna Everitt and Brenda O'Neill, Citizen Politics: Research and Theory in Canadian Political Behaviour (Don Mills, Ontario: Oxford, 2003), pp. 92109.

Footnote 13 The Chief Electoral Officer has announced that measures designed to make polling stations and information about advance voting and mail-in ballots more accessible are being adopted specifically to increase participation among Canada's youngest voters. See Elections Canada news release dated March 21, 2003, at

Footnote 14 André Blais, To Vote or Not to Vote: The Merits and Limits of Rational Choice Theory (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000).


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