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The National Youth Election Survey Report: A Subgroup Analysis of Political and Civic Participation among Canadian Youth

Note to the Reader

This report was presented at the conference “Youth Political Participation: On the Diverse Roads to Democracy,” June 16–17, 2016, Montreal, Quebec.

Executive Summary

Canada's 42nd federal election was held on October 19, 2015. In addition to being the first federal vote held under fixed-date election laws, at 78 days it was one of the longest political campaigns in Canadian history. With official voter turnout at 68.3%, the 2015 election saw participation rise for the second consecutive federal election by 7 percentage points compared to the previous federal vote, in 2011. Recent evidence on youth electoral participation in Canada has suggested that, inter alia, youth vote at lower rates than older adults (e.g., Barnes & Virgint, 2010); that some of this difference corresponds to a generational shift in attitudes, and thus leads to a decline in voter turnout over time (Blais et al., 2004; Blais & Loewen, 2011); and that there is significant variation in the propensity to participate among various youth subgroups (Gélineau, 2013).

In this report, we analyse data from the 2015 National Youth Survey to assess the state of Canadian youths' involvement in political and civic life. In particular, we aim to find out to what extent youth engage in voting and other forms of political and civic participation, which factors explain differences in participation rates between younger and older citizens, how equal participation is among various youth subgroups, and what factors might account for any potential variation in participation.

In line with previous work, our principal findings show a gap in the self-reported participation between younger and older adults when it comes to voting, but not in most other forms of political and civic behaviours. Reported voter turnout among young Canadians ages 34 and younger is approximately 20 percentage points lower than among older citizens. With respect to other forms of participation, although younger adults are less likely to contact politicians, they do not lag behind older Canadians in terms of overall political participation or a civic engagement through volunteering or participation in community meetings.

The main reason why youth vote less and are less likely to contact politicians can be primarily explained by differences in political attitudes. Youth are less interested and knowledgeable about politics and are less likely to believe that voting is a civic duty. Youth are also less likely to be mobilised by political parties and to receive Election Canada's voter information card. However, this weaker exposure to mobilisation contributed only slightly to youth's lower propensity to participate. Similarly, youth do not participate less because of their socioeconomic situation. Actually, had young Canadians possessed the same socioeconomic characteristics as older Canadians, we estimate that the gap in voter turnout would be even stronger. Altogether, to paraphrase a classic formulation by Sidney Verba and colleagues (1995, p. 15), youth participate less than older voters mostly because "they do not want to," and not because "they can't" or "nobody asked."

Self-reported participation among young Canadians is perhaps more equal across groups of youth than in the past. An important finding from the present research is that, contrary to what might be expected, Aboriginal youth reported voting in 2015 to the same extent as non-Aboriginal youth. Furthermore, after controlling for differences in socioeconomic resources, political attitudes, and mobilising influences, Aboriginal youth were six percentage points more likely than non-Aboriginal youth to report having voted. With respect to other youth subgroups, only unemployed youth and youth living in rural areas are substantially less likely to participate in all types of political and civic participation. This can be attributed to these respondents' relative disadvantage in terms of socioeconomic resources and low levels of political knowledge. Importantly, we also show that parenthood creates additional obstacles to voter turnout for young women, but not young men, as the fact of having children considerably reduces participation of young mothers, but not young fathers.

Drawing on our principal and secondary findings, we recommend that Elections Canada (EC) coordinate with educational institutions and propose new, innovative activities to stimulate young citizens' interest and knowledge of political processes. EC should cooperate with other relevant authorities in a sustained effort to promote commitment to democracy and explain its requirements at all levels of schooling and beyond. EC should develop strategies to promote registration and reregistration (after moving), specifically among young voters, who are characterized by particularly high degrees of residential mobility. EC should explore new ways to reach young citizens, such as dispatching copies of voter information cards electronically. Last but not least, EC should expand its efforts to make voting accessible to young families in general, but young mothers in particular.