Youth Participation Key to a Healthy Democracy

Author: Marc Mayrand, Chief Electoral Officer of Canada.
Image: Graham F. Scott

May 2nd, 2011, marked the 41st time since Confederation that Canadians voted in a federal election. By the time polls closed on election night, over 14.8 million Canadians – 61.1% of registered electors – had cast a vote. However, among young Canadians, the participation rate was much lower: just 38.8% of Canadians aged 18 to 24 and 45.1% of 25- to 34-year-olds voted. But it doesn’t have to be this way. If we can address the barriers that are keeping young Canadians from the polls, the trend can be reversed. Making such a change will require action by many key stakeholders – including young people themselves. Will it be worth it? Given that the health of any democracy depends on the active involvement of its citizens, I think the answer is yes!

A study commissioned by Elections Canada following the election gives new insight into why youth are less politically engaged. The National Youth Survey, which involved 2,665 young adults aged 18 to 34, detailed the motivational and access barriers they experienced. When asked why they did not vote, most participants cited access issues: they were too busy, couldn’t get to the polls, or didn’t know where the polls were. But scratching below the surface, the study found that in most cases, motivational issues were more important than access barriers.

So what did the study say about why youth aren’t motivated? Many of the young non-voters surveyed felt that they lacked the knowledge to participate – specifically, knowledge about the candidates, political parties and their platforms. They were generally less interested in politics, less likely to view voting as a civic duty, and more likely to feel that all political parties were the same and that no party spoke to issues relevant to youth.

What about those in the survey who did vote? Those who knew about and were interested in politics were much more likely to vote, as were those who had discussed politics with their friends and families, and importantly, those who had been directly contacted by a party or candidate during the election.

These results underscore the importance of civic education – both in our schools and in our homes – in developing the political knowledge, skills and interest that support electoral participation. They also reaffirm the vital mobilizing role that political parties and candidates can play in encouraging participation among young Canadians.

How can student groups and students themselves play a role in addressing motivational barriers based on this research?

While there is no magic bullet, here are some simple things that you can do, both as individuals and collectively within your student associations or campus groups, during and between elections.

Encourage students to get informed and provide them with the tools to do so.

Lack of political knowledge was identified as a key motivational barrier. In our survey, 90% of youth who correctly answered three simple political questions reported voting, compared to 24% of those who could not answer one correctly. The more knowledgeable you are, the more likely you are to feel motivated to participate. Student associations and campus groups can help inform students by providing them with information on how to access party platforms, by sharing website links to educational resources, and by working with youth groups and community organizations to host political information sessions.

Invite parties and candidates to meet with students and speak on campus.

Our survey found that 83% of those who were directly contacted by a candidate or party reported voting, compared to 68% of those who were not contacted. Inviting parties and candidates on campus can create opportunities for these types of contacts and provide students with more information about the election. It also provides parties and candidates with the opportunity to reach out to youth, speak about those issues that are most important to you, and help ensure your views are being heard.

Organize simulations and political debates.

Parliamentary simulations and political debates are a great way to learn about politics and create an atmosphere of excitement on campus that can attract those who may be less engaged. This is something that can be done at any time, not only when an election is called.

Talk to your friends, even those who you wouldn’t normally discuss politics with.

People who talk about politics are more likely to vote – and this is true at all ages. Our survey showed that 78% of those who had discussions with their friends voted, compared to 53% of those who did not. Talking about politics, while being respectful of differences of opinion, is a key component of democratic engagement.

Make voting information available on campus.

Access barriers are still important, particularly when it comes to knowledge of the electoral process. Our research showed that most youth were unaware that they have options to vote other than on election day. Providing more information about where, when and how to vote can help address these barriers. Elections Canada produces a lot of print and electronic material that can help get the word out. We can also work with you at election time to distribute materials to your school and set up staffed information booths on campus.

Canada’s democracy belongs to all Canadians – young and old alike – and we all can do our part to support it.

Students and student associations have a key role to play in this process, as do parents, educators, politicians, the media, electoral agencies and other youth organizations.

You are the future. Make your voices heard. Reverse the trend

Marc Mayrand is the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada. He and his staff will be reading your comments here with great interest.

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