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The National Youth Election Survey Report: A Subgroup Analysis of Political and Civic Participation among Canadian Youth

5. The State of Youth Political and Civic Participation in 2015

5.1 Summary of the Findings

The analyses of the NYS paint a unique portrait of young Canadians' participation across political and civic domains. Our findings suggest that, as a group, youth are not apathetic when it comes to politics. Although they are less likely to vote and to contact politicians when compared to older adults, we find that youth participate at least as much as their elders in most other non-electoral political behaviours and in civic life.

The main reason why youth vote at lower rates and are less likely to contact politicians is primarily a result of differences in political attitudes. Youth are less interested and knowledgeable about politics, and are less likely to believe that voting is a civic duty. Youth are also less likely to be mobilised by political parties and to receive the voter information card, which, however, contributes only little to youth's lower propensity to participate. To paraphrase Sidney Verba and colleagues (1995, p. 15), youth participate less than older voters mostly because "they do not want to," and not because "they can't" or "nobody asked."

Comparing subgroups of Canadian youth, we find that participation in 2015 was perhaps more equal than past studies of youth political participation in Canada might have suggested (see Gélineau, 2013). A particularly encouraging finding is the increase in the participation of Aboriginal youth, who, in contrast with the previous federal elections, voted in 2015 as much as non-Aboriginal citizens. Interestingly, Aboriginal youth, though, remain disadvantaged in terms of voter turnout drivers such as socioeconomic resources and political knowledge. In fact, once we controlled for differences in socioeconomic resources, political attitudes, and exposure to mobilising influencers, Aboriginal youth were 6 percentage points more likely to vote relative to non-Aboriginal youth.

This being said, we do find some evidence of inequalities in the rates of political participation among rural and unemployed youth. These groups notably stand out for their relative disadvantage in terms of socioeconomic resources and low levels of political knowledge. Rural youth are also substantially more likely to have children, which we found to be associated with lower levels of electoral participation for young women more generally, but not young men. This raises additional questions with respect to the gender barriers that may impede young women from voting.

5.2 Policy Recommendations

Overall, our analyses draw a rather positive picture of Canadian youth's political and civic engagement: inequalities in the levels of self-reported participation between youth and older adults and across youth subgroups are relatively limited. That being said, there is still much work to be done, as motivational barriers remain a serious impediment to the political participation of younger Canadians. This is evidenced by the substantial contribution that attitudinal variables, most notably political interest and knowledge, make to explaining the lower propensity of young citizens to vote and reach out to politicians. Not surprisingly, youth are significantly more likely to get engaged if they are interested and knowledgeable about politics. In this regard, Elections Canada (EC) should maintain a commitment to education and outreach. Additionally, community partners and educational institutions should collaborate to propose new, innovative activities to stimulate young citizens' interest and knowledge of political processes.

The fact that youth are not as interested in politics and are less likely to embrace the belief that voting is a civic duty presumably reflects a broader generational value change that affects a large number of established democracies (see Blais & Rubenson, 2013; Kostelka, 2015, chapter 4). This trend may be difficult to reverse and may be particularly problematic in the long term as generational replacement could, all things considered, reduce overall turnout levels in Canada. EC should cooperate with other relevant authorities in a sustained effort to promote commitment to democracy and explain its requirements at all levels of schooling and beyond. The message has to be clear: democracy cannot be taken for granted and there can be no democracy without participation.

As stated above, a small portion of the gap in voter turnout can be attributed to youth's lower likelihood of receiving a voter information card. This may reflect youth's lower voter registration rate (as only registered voters receive the card), as well as greater residential mobility (see Table 3 in Section 3.1). To curb this negative effect, two measures may be considered. First, EC should develop strategies to promote registration and reregistration (after moving) specifically among young voters. One suggestion would be to engage to a greater extent with post-secondary institutions to ensure that new students know how to update their registration information. Second, EC should make sure that voter information cards reach all registered voters. To that effect, it may be useful to explore new ways to reach young electors. For instance, EC might explore the feasibility of collecting registered voters' email addresses and, in addition to dispatching the voter information card by post, send a copy to voters also electronically.

Finally, the proposed measures, including information campaigns and civic training, should target in particular the most disadvantaged subgroups in terms of political and civic engagement: the unemployed and rural youth. EC should also work to consolidate the higher levels of reported turnout among Aboriginal youth in 2015. Further, the significantly negative association between young motherhood and self-reported voting should encourage EC to expand their efforts to make voting accessible to young families. This may be important also in the long-term perspective since, as scientific literature has repeatedly demonstrated (e.g., Jennings 2007), parents' political attitudes and behaviour strongly affect the behavioural patterns of young adults.