Updated: Mar 29
Policy Opinion by Jesse Hsieh
This piece is part of Kroeger Policy Review's first issue on Race, Religion, and Culture. The full issue is available here.
In the 2019 federal election, 68% of Canadian youths (aged 18-24) cast a ballot, an increase in voter turnout compared to that of 67% in 2015 and 55% in 2011; yet despite this incline, voter turnout for youths still remained the lowest of all age groups in Canada (1).
In 2016, the Library of Parliament published a background paper concluding that today’s youths are less politically knowledgeable, more distrustful of the political system, and less developed in their civic duty compared to the levels of older generations (2). In a study from Elections Canada, Pammett and LeDuc found that not only was age a strong predictor of voting, youths were more politically “disengaged” because they did not feel connected with the political system (3).
So with these research studies indicating youths as the most politically disengaged group in society, how have recent factors changed these conclusions, if these findings have been changed at all? But perhaps another question should be addressed: is it that youths are just not being as politically engaged as the rest of the country, or are they engaging in new forms of political participation, not easily measured by the voter turnout of each election. This article will explore the recent shift in culture that broadens the diversity of how we see youths engaging in the political system of our country.
What Is Political Engagement Today?
In a research report by Samara Canada, it was found that across eighteen forms of political participation excluding voting, ranging from different forms of civic and formal engagements to activism and political discussions, the participation rate of younger Canadians was on average 11 percentage points higher than older Canadians (4). The study showed that compared to the older generations, young Canadians are more likely to sign a petition, boycott products and companies, and participate in protests and demonstrations. Additionally they were also more likely to use social media and technology to discuss politics and share information (5).
But why then, doesn’t all this engagement translate into a higher voter turnout?
Not Interested Or Not Integrated?
In a 2019 survey conducted by Statistics Canada, 46% of eligible voters who didn’t vote say their reasoning was because of everyday life or health reasons, which consisted of being too busy, out of town, and disabilities/illnesses (6). In that same survey, 35% of eligible voters who didn’t vote noted being “not interested in politics” as their reasoning (7).
Another approach to the idea to explain why youths are not interested in politics, is the idea that perhaps youths don’t feel integrated into the political system. Pammett and LeDuc report that 40.4% of youths feel as though young people don’t vote due to not feeling connected with the system, and 33.9% believe the reason lies with a lack of information, understanding, and knowledge (8).
In a 2016 report commissioned by Elections Canada, the study showed that youths who felt voting was a civic duty and had easier access to voting information were more likely to cast a ballot than their opposite counterparts (9). So if the reasons why young Canadians aren’t engaging with the political system is due to lack of information, connection, and time, how can society address these issues?
Technology In The Hands Of Youths
The first is recognizing that technology has the power to increase the reach of political information. In the 2015 National Youth Survey, 56% of youths noted their main source of information coming from television, media websites, or social networking sites (10). Additionally, research shows that the Internet provides an easy access for youths to seek advice and support, and create opportunities for advocacy and activism, all of which can facilitate an increase in an individual’s sense of political duty and interest (11).
Value In The Political System
The second is ensuring that youths feel more valued in our political system. Samara Canada argues that contact from political parties and leaders is important, linking contact to voting and an increased awareness that political decisions matters, yet they report that almost half of young Canadians have not been contacted by political parties compared to that of one-quarter of the oldest age group (12). A reason for this could be that political parties seem to think that young Canadians are less likely to vote, and due to this, choose not to focus their resource on contacting this age group.
A trend that is consistently occurring is that youths feel as if their votes do not matter, and because of this, often find themselves not casting a ballot (13). This is not a constricted feeling by just young Canadians, but may be more prominent due to a lack of education and sense of civic duty. That being said however, studies show that voter turnout is usually higher when there is a competitive election, when there is a feeling that more is at stake, and therefore a single vote appears to matter more (14).
Public Education On Civics
The third is by continuing to provide education on the subject of civic duty and our electoral process. When almost one-half of young Canadians believe voting is a choice and not a duty, it serves to paint a clearer picture as to why we see such low voter turnouts compared to the older generations (15). That being said, would civic education increase the engagement of youths?
With research concluding that civic education has a positive impact on political engagement (increased knowledge, interest, attitudes, and intent to vote), initiatives like the Student Vote Program have had a significant impact on students’ political knowledge (16). However, data suggests that while civic courses can have a significant effect on younger generations, the effect may subside over time (17).
Though political engagement and civic participation for youths has increased in the past decade, there is still work to be done. Advancements in technology have made it easier to address issues of information, a common barrier to voting access and political knowledge. With this, political parties and politicians should continue to push their online presence and make greater strides to contacting younger Canadians, which could help bridge the gap of disconnect and disinterest. It would certainly assist in increasing their feeling of value in our political system and often leads
to a greater chance at casting a ballot (18). Ultimately, it comes down to informing future generations of youths why political engagement is important and why civic participation is necessary to our democracy. Whether this is done through non-partisan organizations or political parties integrating youth outreach into their policies, every citizen in our democracy should work to better inform and engage our youths to further strengthen our electoral process.
Statistics Canada Government Of Canada, "Chart 1 Voter Turnout by Age Group, 2011, 2015 and 2019 Federal Elections," Voter Turnout by Age Group, 2011, 2015 and 2019 Federal Elections, February 26, 2020, https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/200226/cg-b001-eng.htm.
"Journals No. 12 - February 17, 2004 (37-3) - House of Commons of Canada," Journals No. 12 - February 17, 2004 (37-3) - House of Commons of Canada, https://www.ourcommons.ca/DocumentViewer/en/37-3/house/sitting-12/journals.
Jon H. Pammett and Lawrence H. LeDuc, Explaining the Turnout Decline in Canadian Federal Elections: A New Survey of Non-Voters, PDF, Elections Canada, March 2003, https://www.elections.ca/res/rec/part/tud/TurnoutDecline.pdf.
Samara Canada, Message Not Delivered: The Myth of Apathetic Youth and the Importance of Contact in Political Participation, PDF, Toronto: Samara Canada, September 2015, https://www.samaracanada.com/docs/default-source/default-document-library/samara-me ssagenotdelivered-g.pdf?sfvrsn=2.
Statistics Canada Government Of Canada, "Table 2 Reasons for Not Voting by Age Group and Sex, 2019 Federal Election ," Reasons for Not Voting by Age Group and Sex, 2019 Federal Election, February 26, 2020, https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/200226/t002b-eng.htm.
Pammett and LeDuc, Explaining the Turnout Decline.
Jean-François Daoust and Fernando Feitosa, "I Don't Want To or Is It Too Difficult? The Impact of Motivational and Access Factors on Youth Turnout in the 2015 Canadian Election," Elections Canada, June 2016, https://www.elections.ca/content.aspx?section=res&dir=rec/part/yth/yp/imaf&document= index&lang=e.
Nielsen Consumer Insights, "2015 National Youth Survey," Elections Canada, May 06, 2016, https://www.elections.ca/content.aspx?section=res&dir=rec/eval/pes2015/nys&document=p3&lang=e#c.
Ellen Middaugh, Lynn Schofield Clark, and Parissa J. Ballard, "Digital Media, Participatory Politics, and Positive Youth Development," Pediatrics 140, no. Supplement 2 (2017), doi:10.1542/peds.2016-1758q.
Samara Canada, Message Not Delivered.
Elections Canada, "Youth Voting Trends," Elections Canada, https://electionsanddemocracy.ca/canadas-elections/youth-voting-trends.
Allison Harell and Tania Gosselin, "The Youth Vote in the 2015 Election," Canadian Election Analysis: Communication, Strategy, and Democracy, 2015, https://www.ubcpress.ca/asset/1712/election-analysis2015-final-v3-web-copy.pdf.
Nielsen Consumer Insights, "2015 National Youth Survey."
Elevate Consulting, "Student Vote Program Evaluation," Elections Canada, 2011, https://www.elections.ca/content.aspx?section=res&dir=rec/part/svp&document=index&l ang=e.
Phillippe Duguay and Allison Harell, "The Social and Civic Sources of Voting and Participation," Elections Canada, June 2016, https://www.elections.ca/content.aspx?section=res&dir=rec/part/yth/yp/scsvp&document =index&lang=e.
Laura Anthony, Jane Hilderman, and Alison Loat, What Parties Do to Engage and Mobilize Youth: A Literature Review of 5 Countries, PDF, Toronto: Samara Canada, 2013, https://www.samaracanada.com/docs/default-source/reports/elections-canada--what-parties-do-to-engage-and-mobilize-youth.pdf?sfvrsn=befd042f_2.