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

9. Youth and Education

We have noted frequently in this report the connection of age with not voting. Table 14, for example, showed that recent cohorts of young electors participated at particularly low levels in recent federal elections. Age was the strongest predictor of voting in tables 1720, when a wide variety of factors was examined. Age is also an important predictor of the development of a feeling of civic duty (Table 30). And a wide variety of additional age effects on other variables will be noted shortly in the upcoming section on age cohorts.

In such a situation, it seems natural to turn our attention directly to the factor of not voting among youth. As part of the survey, we asked an open-ended question of all respondents: "It has often been observed that young people are less likely to vote than older people. Why do you think this is?" The responses to this question (Table 42) fall into two broad categories, those related to the lack of integration of young people into the political system, and those suggesting that the problem lies with basic attitudes of apathy or political distrust held by young people.

Table 42 Perceived Reasons Why Young People Less Likely to Vote (Open-ended; multiple responses)

Not Integrated
Under 25 years old 25 and older
Distanced from politics by age; not feeling represented, connected
Lack of information, understanding, knowledge
Lack of encouragement
Too busy, too mobile

Under 25 years old 25 and older
Uninterested, apathetic
Negativism, cynicism, disillusionment
Distrustful of system, politicians
Irresponsibility, rebelliousness, laziness

  Under 25 years old 25 and older
Do not know
N =
1 420

Both categories of response were popular public explanations of the lower rate of voting by youth (multiple responses were permitted). It is apparent, however, that most Canadians feel that young people are not voting because they feel distanced from the operations of the political system, or because they lack information about it (Table 42, top two categories). The first explanation, distancing, has answers of the following nature:

  •  youth do not believe that government represents them or cares about their views,  their needs, and their issues
  •  the age difference distances youth from the political process and the politicians
  •  political parties do not reach out to them, or are out of touch with youth
  •  youth feel that politics does not affect them, perhaps because they have not yet  developed the responsibilities which are the subject of political issues
  • no one listens to young people; they have no voice

Feelings of not being connected with politics such as those mentioned above are cited by over a third of the total sample, but are cited by an even higher number of young people. There is a prevalent feeling, then, that young people lack representation in the current political system. This perception is joined by one that young people simply do not have enough political information. This lack of knowledge relates to all aspects of politics  –  the candidates, parties and issues. It extends to a lack of knowledge of how the operations of politics might affect their lives. Young people might find politics too difficult, complicated and confusing, adding up to a sense of intimidation that results in indifference.

Explanations for not voting among youth also frequently involved reasons we have classified as "Disengagement". The bulk of these simply categorized youth as uninterested or apathetic when it comes to casting votes in elections. This image of uncaring youth is sometimes accompanied by a more purposeful description of youth as being actively negative toward politics or elections. Some of the respondents said young people were less likely to vote because they were cynical or disillusioned about politics, sick of the "false promises, dishonesty, hypocrisy, corruption and negativity" which supposedly characterize political life, and not willing to participate in a "meaningless" activity. Young people are also seen by some respondents as lacking trust or faith in candidates, parties, or the government, or simply disliking what is happening (or not happening) in politics. A lower number of respondents was negative about young people, calling them "irresponsible, immature, lazy, rebellious, or lacking in foresight or vision."

Table 43 "What do you think should be done to get young people to be more interested in politics? (open-ended; multiple responses)

Improved Education; Information
Under 25 years old 25 and older
More education in the schools
More dialogue/exposure/education (general)
More emphasis on personal relevance, benefits, jobs
More advertisements, media exposure
More education in the home

Political System Change; Involvement
Under 25 years old 25 and older
More relevant issues to youth
Recruitment, involvement of youth
Younger candidates, politicians, leaders
Better politicians, leaders, parties
Electoral reform; democratic reform

Changes in Conduct of Politics
Under 25 years old 25 and older
Government relate better to, understand youth
More honesty, responsibility, accountability in politics
Make politics less complicated, more interesting, fun

  Under 25 years old 25 and older
Nothing, do not know
N =
1 184

We followed the question about the reasons for lower voting levels among youth with "What do you think should be done to get young people to be more interested in politics?" The answers to this question are shown in Table 43. A majority of people responding mentioned "improved education or information" as a potential solution, an answer that follows logically from the important place the diagnosis of "lack of education" played in the reasons for not voting by youth. Answers in this category, however, were reasonably diverse, dealing not only with the need for more education in the schools but also in the home (one person even mentioned the workplace) and in the media. There was also a realization on the part of some that increased information or education needed to be made relevant to the interests and personal situations of young people, to better engage them.

The notion of increased relevance to young people comes up again in the next category of answers, which referred to changes that might be made to the political system to encourage more involvement of youth. We can see from Table 43 that a substantial number of all respondents felt those responsible for the issue agenda of politics should make more effort to accommodate issues of relevance to young people. These issues could relate to the jobs, education and future of youth. It is interesting also to note that a number of people felt that recruitment or involvement efforts would pay off. Other changes suggested in this category related to the involving effects that might result from an injection of youth into the personnel of politics; younger leaders, politicians and electoral candidates were cited as beneficial. Some people also mentioned structural change in the form of electoral reform, but this was not heavily emphasized in the answers.

Finally, the theme of greater relevance to youth also comes up as the first entry in the third category from Table 43, that of changes in the actions or conduct of those running the political system. Some of all respondents felt that young people might become more interested in politics if government made an effort to contact and relate to youth, giving them more say in government activities. Other people who referred to changes in the conduct of politics were more likely to cite the need for changes such as more honesty, responsibility and accountability in the actions of politicians.

Table 44 "Schools should do more to educate children in the
    benefits of voting and political participation"

Strongly Agree= 44%  ;  Agree= 39%  ;  Disagree= 11%  ;  Strongly Disagree= 6%


Table 45 "The voting age should be lowered to 16 to
        encourage young people to participate"

Strongly Agree= 8%  ;  Agree= 16%  ;  Disagree=44%  ;  Strongly Disagree= 33%

From the list of reasons for, and remedies for, the low political and electoral participation of youth, we may profitably focus on the topic of education. Another question in the survey specifically asked whether people believed that "Schools should do more to educate children in the benefits of voting and political participation." Table 44 shows that there is overwhelming agreement to this suggestion. Giving more attention to political education in the schools, media, and in the home, would merely reinforce current policy thinking in educational circles, witness the efforts of provincial governments to build more civics training into the secondary school curriculums. Elections Canada already puts considerable effort into a public education campaign, but more could be done.

One additional suggestion we asked about received less public support. When asked if they thought "the voting age should be lowered to 16 to encourage young people to participate", Table 45 shows that only about one quarter of those surveyed (24 percent) feels that lowering the voting age would be a desirable way of bringing more young people into the political process. Whatever the long-term merits of such an idea, there appears to be a realization that extending the franchise to 16–18 year-olds would initially further decrease the voting rate, and that further education would be needed to pave the way before the majority of the public would be prepared to consider it.