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Explaining the Turnout Decline in Canadian Federal Elections: A New Survey of Non-voters

5. Civic Duty

Civic duty is the feeling that participation is to be valued for its own sake, or for its contribution to the overall health of the polity, and does not need to be justified on instrumental grounds. For the believer in the importance of participating out of duty, neither is it important that the elector be enticed to cast a ballot by a particularly attractive bevy of candidates, parties, or policies, nor is it essential that the race be close and the vote more likely to "count" in determining the outcome. Rather, the conscientious voter motivated by civic duty feels that voting is important for its own sake.

Table 29 Civic Duty by Vote in the 2000 Federal Election (Column percentages)

  Total Voters in 2000 Non-voters in 2000 IRPP 2000
In your view, how important is it that people vote in elections? Essential
Very important
Somewhat important
Not at all important
  V = .475  (p < .000)
N = 2 029
N = 1 278

Conceptualized in these terms, a sense of civic duty may be measured by the question reported in Table 29, "In your view, how important is it that people vote in elections?" with the alternatives starting at "essential" and working their way down to "not at all important". The question was worded with these alternatives to compare with a question asked in the IRPP survey of 2000 (Paul Howe and David Northrup, "Strengthening Canadian Democracy", Policy Matters, July 2000, Institute for Research on Public Policy, Montreal, p. 25). Unfortunately, the question is not strictly comparable, since the last alternative was worded "Not at all important" in the current survey, whereas the IRPP worded theirs "Not all that important". Even with this change, we have presented the comparative data in Table 29, and we conclude that the perceived importance of voting in 2002 is similar to 2000, since the 2002 survey contains half non-voters, and non-voters are less likely to think voting is important. The IRPP survey contained no oversample of non-voters.

The overall results in Table 29 show that a strong majority of Canadians thinks voting in elections is either "essential" or "very important". Only about a quarter of the total sample in our study gives it a "somewhat important" or "not important" rating. The breakdown offered in the table, however, shows that there is a strong relationship between having an attitude of civic duty and having voted in the 2000 election. Among voters, almost everybody thinks it is at least "very important" if not "essential", whereas non-voters show a much lower level of civic duty. We have already seen in tables 17 to 20 that the two factors (7 and 8 in the tables) involving the civic duty measure are among the leading predictors of having voted in recent elections.

Table 30 Predictors of Civic Duty (Multiple Regression)

B Std. Error Beta
In what year were you born?
What is the highest level of formal education you have received?
Total household income for the year 2001
Were you born in Canada or outside Canada?
Length of residence
Inefficacy/cynicism/party negative†
Trust, represented†
Party support†
Active participation†
Passive participation†
? = factor scores
* = statistically significant p < .01
missing data = mean substitution
R 2 = .216
N = 1 108

What factors might be related to having a sense of civic duty? When we turn the analysis around and designate civic duty as the dependent variable, the item to be explained, we see the results in Table 30. In choosing what to enter into this regression, we avoided putting in variables, such as political interest, which form part of the civic duty factors themselves (Table 15). However, we did use the efficacy, trust and party support factors (Table 16), which show themselves to be significant predictors of civic duty in Table 30. In particular, positive feelings about the ability of political parties to "represent people's interests", "provide good plans for new policies", and "discuss issues that really are of interest to voters" provide the strongest predictor of civic duty (Beta = .227*). The factors representing feelings of political trust, and political efficacy, are also important to lesser degrees. Among the socio-demographic variables, greater age heightens civic duty, suggesting that it grows with time, as does higher education, suggesting it grows with knowledge.