open Secondary menu

National Roundtable on Youth Voter Engagement

Appendix C: Pre-Session Background Paper

June 5, 2012
Lord Elgin Hotel
Ottawa, ON

Discussion Paper


As in most advanced democracies, voter turnout has steadily declined in Canada over the past two decades, at both the federal and the provincial levels. This trend is driven primarily by declining youth voter turnout. Research shows that young people today are less likely to vote than previous generations and less likely to become regular voters later on in life.Footnote 2 This has implications for the long-term health of our democratic system, and it raises questions about why young Canadians are disengaged from the electoral process and what we can do about it.

While electoral agencies have sought to make voting more accessible, they are limited in their ability to address underlying issues related to why many young people choose not to vote. Declining youth voter turnout is a societal issue, and an effective response requires coordinated action among those who have the experience and ability to address the motivational issues that prevent youth from casting a ballot in the first place. Although many stakeholders have considerable expertise in fostering democratic participation, engaging youth and providing civic education, few opportunities have emerged thus far for stakeholders to begin working collaboratively in a coordinated manner.

As a first step, Elections Canada and Canada's Public Policy Forum will convene the National Roundtable on Youth Voter Engagement on June 5, 2012, in Ottawa. Elections Canada and the Public Policy Forum are seeking the input and assistance of the assembled organizations and individuals to help craft the foundation for collective, multi-sectoral action to address this issue. A concerted effort is needed to help reverse declining youth voter turnout in Canada, and the participants in this roundtable have been convened to begin this process.

The roundtable will have two principal objectives:

  1. To develop a shared understanding of the issue of declining civic engagement among young Canadians.
  2. To agree on the actions that can be taken by the assembled stakeholders, either collectively or individually, to address the issue.

The event will provide participants with the opportunity to move beyond discussing the root causes of declining youth voter turnout to identify which factors can be addressed, by whom and how.


Declining Youth Voter Turnout and Barriers to Participation

In the May 2, 2011, federal election, 61.1 percent of registered Canadian electors turned out to cast a ballot. While this is up slightly from 58.8 percent in 2008, it is a far cry from the 75 percent that Canada averaged in the decades following the Second World War. Turnout for young Canadians in the 2011 election was considerably below the average – just 38.8 percent of Canadians aged 18 to 24 and 45.1 percent of 25-to-34-year-olds voted.

That young people vote less often than their elders is not new; the tendency for voter turnout to increase with age is a long-standing finding of research on voter participation.Footnote 3 What has changed is that young people are voting at much lower rates today than they were 30 or 40 years ago. Voter turnout among first-time eligible electors has been declining steadily since the 1970s. A second trend is the decreasing tendency for today's youth to take up the habit of voting as they grow older. Whereas in the past young voters tended to "catch up" to the rest of the population by about their third election, today that process takes longer – and, for a growing number of people, it never happens. As Paul Howe points out in his recent book, Citizens Adrift, there is a growing tendency for today's young electors to become habitual non-voters.Footnote 4

To gain a better understanding of the reasons why youth may or may not participate in the electoral process, Elections Canada commissioned the National Youth Survey following the 2011 general election. The study – the most comprehensive to date on the electoral participation of 18-to-34-year-olds – detailed the motivational and access barriers young Canadians experience in exercising their right to vote.Footnote 5

Key access barriers that were identified by the study included those related to:

  • Process knowledge: Barriers associated with lack of knowledge of the actual electoral process, such as how, where or when to vote. Youth who know more about the electoral process are more likely to vote.

  • Personal circumstances: Barriers associated with one's personal situation, such as being sick, lacking transportation or having moved.

  • Administrative issues: Actual or perceived barriers to the administration of the voting process, such as accessibility of a polling site or perceptions of a polling station.

Addressing many of these barriers falls within the realm of electoral agencies – for example, providing more accessible information on the voting process or addressing accessibility issues at a polling station. However, research suggests that fixing these problems alone will not produce the desired increase in youth voter turnout.

While access barriers are important, motivational factors outweigh access barriers as the primary determinants of non-voting. The National Youth Survey identified the following motivational factors:

  • Attitudes: Barriers consisting of negative attitudes toward politics, such as a feeling that all political parties are the same or that none speak to issues important to youth. Individuals who face these barriers may be knowledgeable but do not want to vote. In contrast, youth who believed that voting is a civic duty were much more likely to vote.

  • Interest: Barriers based on lack of interest in or apathy toward politics. Youth with higher levels of political interest are more likely to cast a ballot.

  • Political influencers: Barriers arising from a lack of personal influencers encouraging political participation, most notably parents and politicians. Youth who vote are more likely to have had political discussions growing up at home and are more likely to have been contacted by a politician during an election.

  • Political knowledge: Barriers defined by lack of knowledge of politics, issues, parties and/or candidates. Individuals who face these barriers may be interested in voting but feel that they lack the political knowledge to be able to make a choice. Those with higher levels of political knowledge are significantly more likely to vote. Youth who have taken a civic education course are also more likely to vote.

Significantly, some youth groups – such as Aboriginal youth and unemployed youth who are not in school – face even greater barriers to voting than the general youth population. Youth in these groups are also much more likely to be habitual non-voters.

The Need for Coordinated, Collaborative Action

The findings of the National Youth Survey provide a common ground to begin tackling the problem of declining youth voter turnout by prioritizing key areas that need to be addressed and developing common strategies and approaches. While electoral agencies have a key role to play in addressing access barriers, coordinated, collaborative action among a range of stakeholders is required to deal with the much more complex issue of motivation. This type of approach provides opportunities to pool resources, exchange information, learn from each other and ensure complementarity and synergy. Greater results can be achieved if collective action is taken by leaders across all sectors.

This means working together to create the conditions that foster engagement among youth while reducing the barriers that restrict their participation. Among other things, we need to find ways to provide all youth with civic education tools and opportunities, bridge the gap between young people and politicians, make politics relevant to youth and reach out to those least likely to participate. To be effective, such work needs to take place on an ongoing basis between elections – and not only at election time.

The need for collaborative action raises the question: who must be included? Stakeholders who work with and represent youth are clearly essential, as are those with expertise in engagement, education and civic participation more broadly. A cross-sectoral approach that involves stakeholders from civil society, the private sector and government is crucial, including educators, youth-serving organizations, student federations, private sector organizations, post-secondary institutions, members of the media and government agencies. Groups representing diverse segments of the youth population – such as those representing Aboriginal youth and ethnocultural youth – must also be included.

The National Roundtable on Youth Voter Engagement will provide a forum for representatives from these organizations to discuss priorities and identify action areas to begin reversing declining youth voter turnout within a larger collaborative framework.

Ensuring Success

In thinking about what we might accomplish as a group, it is important to consider those areas where there is the greatest potential for (and interest in) collaboration and action.

Roundtable participants will be tasked with two objectives. First, developing a shared understanding of the issue will centre on identifying which motivational factors can be most effectively addressed through collective, cross-sector action. Second, agreeing on actions that can be taken will focus on prioritizing actions, outlining needs and identifying potential leaders. While the input of participants during the roundtable will determine which themes should be central to the discussion, existing research suggests certain thematic areas worthy of consideration. These themes include:

  1. Reaching the hard-to-reach – how do we reach those youth who are the least likely to vote and who may largely be outside established networks?

  2. Increasing political knowledge – what are the essential tools and resources youth need to understand politics? How can we make these available both inside and outside the classroom?

  3. Bridging the gap between youth and politicians – how do we build connections between youth and politicians?

  4. Supporting participation at multiple levels – how can we encourage local civic participation as a bridge to voting?

  5. Getting parents involved – how do we better leverage parents as primary political influencers? What kinds of tools can help facilitate this?

  6. Making politics and participation relevant and the norm – how do we overcome the disconnect many youth feel with politics? While civic duty is clearly important, what other attitudes and values can be fostered to make politics and participation relevant and normal for youth?

  7. Others?

Addendum: For further research into motivational and access barriers, please consult The National Youth Survey, conducted by Elections Canada following the May 2011 federal election. This study found that while access barriers are important, motivational factors have a greater impact on the decision not to vote. The National Youth Survey report is available here.

Footnote 2 Youth Electoral Engagement in Canada, Andrι Blais and Peter Loewen, Elections Canada Working Paper Series, 2011.

Footnote 3 See, for example, Raymond Wolfinger and Steven Rosenstone, Who Votes? Yale University Press, 1980.

Footnote 4 Paul Howe, Citizens Adrift: The Democratic Disengagement of Young Canadians. UBC Press, 2010.

Footnote 5 The National Youth Survey Report is available on the Elections Canada website. The survey included a national random sample of 1,372 youth and young adults aged 18 to 34 years and an additional non-random sample of 1,293 youth from the following subgroups: Aboriginal youth, ethnocultural youth, youth in rural areas, youth with disabilities and unemployed youth not in school.