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National Roundtable on Youth Voter Engagement

Morning Session - Key Themes

  • Declining turnout is a broad societal issue. Youth turnout, particularly the issue of motivation to vote, is an important element of this problem and the focus of this discussion.

  • "Youth" are not a homogenous or cohesive group. They represent a fragmented demographic, constantly evolving in terms of their identity and their relationships with institutions. Efforts to increase youth voter turnout must take the differing needs of these groups into account.

  • Declining youth voter turnout should be seen in the context of broader social changes. Issues such as trust in our political system, and how youth view their roles as citizens, are important topics for consideration.

Opening Remarks

The Roundtable on Youth Voter Engagement took place on June 5, 2012 at the Lord Elgin Hotel in Ottawa.

Chief Electoral Officer, Marc Mayrand, and Public Policy Forum President and CEO, David Mitchell, co-chaired the session.

In opening the dialogue, the co-chairs discussed the complex nature of declining youth voter turnout and emphasized the need to forge a common approach among multiple sectors to address the issue. This challenge is not the sole responsibly of election management bodies. All Canadians have a stake in this issue, and a need exists for a pan-Canadian initiative to address declining youth civic engagement.

Voter turnout has steadily declined in Canada over the past two decades at all levels of government. Those who don’t vote in the first few elections when they are eligible to exercise their democratic franchise are less likely to become voters later in life. With overall turnout at record low levels, and youth turnout between 34% and 39%, the compounding effects of declining youth turnout will likely have lasting impacts. At this rate, Canada may soon find itself in a situation where less than half of eligible electors bother to cast ballots. This poses serious challenges to the integrity of our democratic system in the long-term.

This decline in turnout is not a simple problem and those convened for this roundtable agreed that there are no quick fixes. However, participants were encouraged to make use of the diversity of representation and opinion assembled for this session to propose constructive ideas that may form part of a larger strategy to address this issue. Throughout the dialogue participants put forward ideas for discussion and consideration by the full group. The summary of these individual ideas and group discussions forms this roundtable report.

Morning Session: Understanding the Problem

Objective: Develop a collective understanding of the issue of declining civic engagement among young Canadians

Voter turnout is declining at many levels, and while each demographic group demonstrates its own trends, the low and steadily deteriorating level of youth voter turnout is of paramount concern. Continued decline in turnout will pose challenges to the legitimacy of our elected legislatures, and further undermine the extent to which citizens feel their voices are reflected in government. Thus, the need for action to address this issue is pressing. But taking action, particularly on youth voter turnout, requires better knowledge of how young Canadians view civic participation, and the broader social context in which they live their lives. Dr. Diane Pacom of the University of Ottawa led the morning dialogue among participants, during which key points relating to the societal context of young Canadians were discussed.

As we seek to understand the factors affecting youth voter turnout, several participants underscored the importance of understanding the definition of "youth". As the traditional benchmarks associated with adulthood have increasingly been delayed (e.g. marriage, end of education, homeownership, etc.), the concept of youth has become more encompassing. At the same time, youth are highly fragmented and their identities, and how others perceive them, are in a state of flux.

As we further our understanding of the target demographic, we must then ask: what is driving the disengagement of youth from voting? Two issues were presented which could be contributing to this disengagement – the need for what might be called "virtue" in democracy, and a redefinition of citizenship among younger citizens.

Roundtable participants at work
Roundtable participants at work

The virtue needed in our democracy, some participants suggested, is linked to the trust youth have in our system of governance. For young Canadians today, this trust is simply lacking. In some segments of the youth population, inattention by political leaders to key issues has undermined trust in existing government institutions. As one participant put it, youth are effectively "dropping out" as they lose interest in a political system that has increasingly become irrelevant to them. However, some noted that the trust issue may not be unique to youth, and that combinations of factors may more prominently contribute to their lack of desire to vote. Some participants opined that young Canadians often lack access to the entire system; not simply to the polls on election day. They questioned if institutions don't offer youth tools to meaningfully participate in governance, why should youth reciprocate by playing active roles in institutions? In addition, the foundation of citizenship is different for many young Canadians. In a constantly evolving social landscape, traditional conceptions of citizenship are changing and youth are less inclined to see voting as a civic duty.

These issues generally fall under the banner of what some have termed "motivational barriers". These affect the willingness of individuals to vote, as opposed to their actual ability to vote.Footnote 1

Building upon the morning discussion, and combined with the results of a pre-event survey of participants, three principal areas for discussion were identified for the afternoon working groups:

  1. Reaching the hard-to-reach: including improving the accessibility of institutions to youth, focusing on marginalized sectors of the youth population and using new methods of organizing and conducting polls on election day to make them easier and more comfortable for youth.

  2. Increasing political knowledge: including both formal and informal education, and other efforts to improve overall civic knowledge.

  3. Making politics and participation relevant and the norm: including focusing on ways to re-engage youth in the system, ideas for addressing the perceived lack of impact of voting, and improving the contact between youth and political leaders.

Working Lunch: Ideas for Action

Peter MacLeod leads luncheon discussion
Peter MacLeod leads luncheon discussion

Over a working lunch, participants had the opportunity to explore public engagement processes, and to discuss new modes of working with citizens to increase their involvement in democratic political life. Peter MacLeod of the public engagement firm MASS LBP led the discussion. Key points raised, which helped spark ideas for consideration during the afternoon discussion, included the need to build the overall level of "democratic fitness" among citizens, and youth in particular. Providing opportunities for learning is essential, as is emphasizing the importance of finding more points of interaction to enable youth to influence government at all levels, and as such, "touch the state."

A possible avenue for action is to leverage public events to create new opportunities for engagement; for example, the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017. Drawing inspiration from similar work during Canada's Centennial Celebrations in 1967, the 150th anniversary could build upon a sense of attachment to our country through rejuvenated public engagement efforts.

In the discussion that followed, many participants reiterated the need to reinvigorate civic life by finding ways to make politics more relevant. Several participants noted that political parties and elected officials need to do more to engage with youth.

Afternoon Session - Key Themes

  • Hard-to-reach youth include unemployed, Aboriginal, rural youth and newcomers to Canada. They can be engaged through a range of new methods (e.g. social media) and institutions should adapt their use of such tools to meet these specific needs.

  • New modes of civic education can help young Canadians find meaningful roles and identify how institutions can impact issues of importance to them.

  • Efforts should be made to transform existing institutions to better respond and adapt to the changing realities of citizenship. Progress toward specific goals should be rigorously tracked.

Afternoon Session: Seeking Solutions

Objective: Agree upon actions that can be undertaken collectively (or individually) to address the issue.

For each of the three issue areas decided upon, a working group was struck to discuss and propose actions that can be taken to lead change and help engage young Canadians.

Working Group 1: reaching the hard-to-reach

Members of this working group noted that the so-called 'hard-to-reach' is not a homogeneous group. It includes many groups within society such as: the unemployed, on and off-reserve Aboriginal youth, rural youth, and newcomers to Canada, to name only a few.

Reaching these groups will require different strategies, and it will be important to track the outcomes within each subset.

For Aboriginal youth, it would be beneficial to blend traditional education with civic education, so that historical knowledge can be employed to support new forms of civic engagement. Voting accessibility could be enhanced for this demographic by having polling stations in areas that are more accessible and familiar for aboriginal youth, such as Friendship Centres.

Across other hard-to-reach groups, numerous proposals were put forward that could form part of a broad-based effort to boost engagement. Ideas include:

  • Establishing provisional voting lists for ages 16-17;
  • Allowing easier registration and voting using e-tools and pre-registration;
  • Targeting social media marketing to hard-to-reach groups, and specialized introductory voting kits for youth in these key subsets;
  • Supporting youth voting ambassadors to share knowledge and spark passion on civic issues; and,
  • Taking advantage of available technologies to make voting more accessible through tools to which most people already have access (web, mobiles social media etc.).

Such ideas are intended to close the distance between the electoral process and hard-to-reach youth. The goal is for engaged leaders to work with young Canadians, bringing the election to them – hence the objective: Bring the Election to You(th)

Andrea Landry presents a summary of the working group session on reaching the hard-to-reach
Andrea Landry presents a summary of the working
group session on reaching the hard-to-reach

Working Group 2: increasing political knowledge

The exchange in this group focussed on three questions:

  1. What is political knowledge?
  2. Where should we focus our efforts?
  3. What actions can be taken?

Political knowledge, it was agreed, includes knowledge of institutions, knowledge of the electoral process and how to participate, experiential knowledge based upon past participation (including negative perceptions), and issue-based knowledge.

Members of the working group noted that efforts to increase political and broader civic knowledge should target voters, but also age groups that are still engaged in formal education (K – 12). Given the limited time for discussion, the working group focussed on the age groups still in formal education, and proposed ideas that can largely be integrated into classroom learning.

Based upon the group's discussion, potential areas for action to increase civic knowledge include:

  • Increasing interaction between young people and Members of Parliament and other elected officials;
  • Modeling the legislative process in classroom exercises;
  • Integrating politics into other school activities (e.g. including democratic decision making processes for school events);
  • Enhancing opportunities for contact between youth and leaders across the spectrum of civic life;
  • Providing more peer-to-peer mentoring relating to civic participation;
  • Developing model democratic institutions in the classroom (e.g. mock House of Commons)
  • Drafting a code of civic responsibility by students;
  • Allow students to conduct mock campaigns to give them a glimpse into how politics works; and,
  • Augmenting classroom-based civic learning with other community activities that have been proven effective.

Taylor Gunn presents a summary of the working group session on making politics and participation relevant
Taylor Gunn presents a summary of the working group
session on making politics and participation relevant

Working Group 3: making politics and participation relevant and the norm

Youth who do not vote should not be written off as completely disengaged. Rather, this should be taken as a sign that they do not see voting as relevant, or the best way to make an impact. Indeed, all citizens need to feel the efficacy of participating in the electoral process.

Our system of governance needs to change to better reflect the people it represents. Young Canadians, students in particular, should be actively involved in guiding this reform, and should take part in its actualization. More research and better awareness is required to help launch such a change, and election management bodies should help with this cause.

Potential areas for action include:

  • Calling upon youth to design, create and conduct annual surveys of their own engagement, to publicly report successes and problem areas;
  • Better integrating youth perspectives into continued research and awareness efforts undertaken by election management bodies; and,
  • Considering mechanisms of compulsory voting; however, this should only be undertaken if matched with enhanced civic education.

Footnote 1 See Appendix C for the pre-session background paper offering research on these issues.