open Secondary menu

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

1. Introduction

Since 2008, Elections Canada (2011) has prioritized youth electoral participation and made it a core pillar of its five-year Strategic Plan (2008–2013). As a result, the National Youth Survey (NYS) was commissioned. The collection of nationally representative survey data on youth political engagement allows for a deeper understanding of the obstacles and opportunities for youth political participation. Implemented in 2011, the first round of the NYS asked a nationwide sample of 2,665 youth about their political attitudes and behaviours (Gélineau, 2013; Malatest & Associates, 2011). The findings suggest that youth are not a homogenous group; on the contrary, there is much variation across youth from different socio-demographic groups in terms of both participation rates and the factors that motivate political participation.

Canada's 42nd federal election was held on October 19, 2015, and was in many ways different from previous federal elections. The contest was very competitive between the three largest federal parties. Following 78 days of campaigning, the 2015 federal election marked one of the longest campaigns in Canadian history, and the October election was the first federal vote held under fixed-date election laws. With 68.3% turnout, the 2015 election saw a 7-percentage-point increase in voter turnout compared to 2011, marking the second election in a row where voter turnout increased (Elections Canada, 2016). Following the 2015 vote, Elections Canada conducted a second wave of the NYS, surveying a nationally representative sample of 2,506 Canadians under the age of 35 between October 21 and November 26, 2015. In addition to the youth sample, the 2015 NYS also included a subsample of 503 adults aged 35 and older.

An empirical understanding of youth political participation is important because inequalities in political participation today can have a negative impact on the representation of youth and the functioning of Canadian democracy by shaping long-term trends in political engagement. Moreover, there is much evidence to suggest that new generations are less likely to vote and that this trend can account for much of the decline in voter turnout in Western societies (Barnes & Virgint, 2010; Blais et al., 2004; Clarke et al., 2004; Dalton, 2007; Franklin, 2004; Lyons & Alexander, 2000; Miller & Shanks, 1996; Wattenberg, 2007). In this report, we present our analysis of the 2015 NYS with respect to three overarching questions:

  1. To what extent do youth engage in voting and other forms of political and civic participation?
  2. Which factors explain potential differences in participation rates between younger and older citizens?
  3. How equal is youth political participation? What inequalities in voter turnout and other political and civic behaviours exist across subgroups of youth and what accounts for them?

This report is developed as follows. In Section 2, we provide a general overview of the state of youth participation during the 2015 Canadian federal election. We show that although youth tend to vote less than older adults, they do not differ significantly in terms of most other political behaviours or civic participation. On the other hand, we find evidence to suggest that there are a certain number of inequalities in self-reported political participation across youth subgroups. In Section 3, we explore the factors that account for differences between younger and older adults in terms of voter turnout and another form of political participation in which youth lag behind, which is contacting politicians. We find that the participation gap is in each case primarily attributed to differences in political attitudes, and that other classic predictors of participation such as socioeconomic resources and exposure to mobilising influences play a much more modest role. In Section 4, we focus on three youth subgroups: the unemployed, youth from rural areas, and Aboriginal youth. We investigate the causes of disengagement among the first two groups, and the evidence which suggests a noticeable increase in participation among the latter group. Section 5 concludes with a discussion of the findings alongside several policy recommendations.