Youth Electoral Engagement in Canada
In many ways, younger Canadians are not very different from their older counterparts. In some respects, though, they are. Perhaps the most important difference is that most of them are not married. They also tend to move more often, to be somewhat better educated and slightly less religious. Their household income is slightly lower. Contrary to what could be expected, they are somewhat more likely to have been born in Canada.
We have seen that, among demographic characteristics, education and origin (i.e. being born in Canada) are the most powerful predictors of voting. Political factors – notably interest in and information about politics – have an even greater effect. We have also confirmed that the recent turnout decline observed in Canada, as in many other countries, is due mainly to the drop in electoral participation among recent cohorts. The turnout rate of new cohorts (who are eligible to vote for the first time in an election) is now only slightly over 30%, while it used to be over 60%.
This raises the question of why so few young electors decide to vote. We have seen that existing research does not allow us to provide clear answers to this question. The review of the literature suggests, however, that this may be more the outcome of changes in youths' socio-demographic situation and/or values and attitudes than in changes in the electoral landscape.
Where do we go from here? The first observation to be made is that almost all the evidence that is marshalled on this question is based on survey data. Survey data are absolutely essential, especially if we want to understand the values and beliefs that lead many young Canadians to abstain in elections. Yet surveys have their limitations, most especially with respect to turnout. The basic problem is that most of those who do not vote do not bother to respond to surveys. The consequence is a substantial under-representation of non-voters in electoral surveys.
Because of these limitations, it is imperative to use other data sources. This is why we strongly encourage Elections Canada to continue its analyses of turnout rates across age groups, based on an examination of actual results. This methodology provides more reliable estimates of turnout than those that can be arrived at with surveys. On this point, it is worth noting that academic studies of turnout in countries like the United States and Britain have the opportunity to validate electoral participation; that is, it is possible to verify if those who say they voted really did so. It is not clear to us why it is a fundamental right to protect the confidentiality of the act of voting, and/or why this right is more important in Canada than in the United States and Britain. Much more could be learned through surveys if it were possible to validate whether respondents actually voted or not.
In the same vein, there is the opportunity to design experiments to test ideas about how to increase turnout among youth. For instance, the personal information that is provided by Elections Canada about where and when to vote comes by mail. It may well be that younger people pay little attention to regular mail and that they would be more responsive if they were contacted through the Internet or through other new communication technologies. The logical way to test such an idea is to run an experiment in a local electoral district, where a random half is contacted by mail and the other half by Internet or another medium. There have been many such experiments conducted in the United States and they have produced some very interesting findings (see Gerber et al. 2008). No equivalent studies, however, have been undertaken in Canada.
We also need to have a much deeper understanding of variations in the propensity to vote among segments of the youth population. The CES data provide some useful information about the profile of young voters and non-voters, but that information is necessarily limited by the relatively small sample of young citizens and the lack of information about some of the socio-demographic characteristics. This would call for a large survey of young respondents that would allow us to better specify which subgroups of the youth population are least and most inclined to vote. At this stage, it is impossible to say anything about turnout among Aboriginal youth, ethno-cultural groups and youth with special needs.
There is also ample evidence that the attitudes and values of recent generations are different from those of their predecessors and that this change is in good part responsible for the recent turnout decline. We have a good sense of what these attitudes and values are, but it is difficult to demonstrate without doubt that this is the case because we have little longitudinal data that would allow us to see precisely if and when these attitudes have changed over time. Thus, the need exists to plan in the future longitudinal studies that will enable us to pin down which attitudes do and do not change and to determine how these attitude changes are correlated with the decision to vote or not to vote. One possibility in this regard would be for Elections Canada to link with Statistics Canada and Human Resources and Skills Development Canada in their National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth.
Finally, there is the issue of new technologies. In Canada, people express their preferences on a ballot paper, which is, to say the least, an old way of doing things. Whether one should allow other forms of voting, most especially mail and/or Internet voting, is a thorny issue that raises fundamental questions about the risk of fraud. Clearly, more research is needed to more rigorously ascertain the potential advantages and disadvantages of these other forms of voting. We first need to take stock of what is being done elsewhere in the world, to learn the successes and failures of experiments that are being done in many countries. But this must be completed by experiments of our own, that are sensitive to the peculiarities of the Canadian context. Again, we strongly encourage Elections Canada to conduct rigorous experiments (with randomly allocated treatment and control groups), perhaps in specific electoral districts and perhaps initially at the time of by-elections, to determine if Canadians in general, and younger citizens in particular, would be more inclined to vote if they could do so from home.
There is much to do if we want to properly understand what induces Canadian youth to engage or not to engage in elections. We need to adopt a variety of approaches, both experimental and non-experimental. We need to complement surveys with analyses based on administrative records. We need to do longitudinal research to understand how and why different cohorts of people come to view the act of voting differently. And we need to do all of this sooner than later.