1. Documentation Summary Review

The declining trend in the Canadian youth voter turnout is significant as shown in the chart below. The 18-24 year olds have always voted in a lesser proportion to the older voting population, however since the 1980’s we have seen a worrying trend: the constant and significant decrease in the initial voter turnout, i.e. a decrease in the turnout of the members of a new group called upon to vote for the first time. This rate has gone from 70% in the 1960’s to 50% in the 1980’s, 40% in the 1990’ to just over 30% in 2004.

Source: Blais and Loewen (2011), Canadian Youth Voter Turnout, p. 15.

Determining factors of youth voter turnout

From what is currently known about voter turnout of youth aged between 18 and 34, we have determined that certain socio-demographic characteristics – including age, education level and place of birth – have a certain impact on the decision to vote, however three political factors have a more determining influence:

  • Seeing the right to vote as a duty;
  • Being interested in politics;
  • Being informed about politics.

2. Survey of Young Quebecers

No survey has specifically been done on young Quebecers voter turnout. We have mentioned previously the importance of doing so. With the purpose of proposing a strategy to increase youth voter turnout, we wanted to know their point of view. In the current mandate, because we were unable to conduct a vast survey, we surveyed the former students between the ages of 18 and 34 of the INM summer schools; 209 people answered the survey.

Our approach was strictly exploratory as our sample comprised of youth more interested and informed about politics than the average. It is therefore not representative of all young Quebecers. Nonetheless, the point of view they expressed is valuable because, being part of to the generations of citizens voting the least, the respondents are likely to perceive certain factors that can explain the high rate of abstentionism among the youth and propose ways that are significant to them, that they can relate to and that reach them.

Civic Education to Fight Lack of Interest

Upon analysis of their answers, we noticed that if such a large number of youth are abstaining from voting, it is primarily due to a lack of interest toward politics (which confirms the conclusion of the documentation consulted), which is likely the result of the lack of civic education.

So, not understanding the functionality of the Quebec democratic life properly – notably its political and electoral systems and the role of the citizen, not having the necessary knowledge and qualifications to make an informed choice between the candidates and not understanding the relationship between politics and their daily life, many youth see no interest in voting and, even less, the impact that their vote can have on the outcome of the elections.

Chart 1: Civic education measures having received the highest level of support in the INM survey likely to increase youth voting
Civic education measures likely to increase youth voting Niveau d’appui en %
Give a bigger place to civic education in elementary and high schools 96
Organize simulated parliamentary sessions in high school, cegep and university 88
Meet and discuss with elected officials 87
Organize simulated elections in high schools 84
Create a compulsory course in cegep on the Quebec and Canadian political and electoral systems 76

This first finding brought a majority of respondents to propose measures aimed at developing youth civic skills. In other words, to make civic education a priority. The chart below shows the measures that stand out by the level of support obtained.

A reform of the voting method so that each vote counts

Along with the misunderstanding of politics, the lack of interest toward politics is also increased by the perception by some that their vote is useless, because the outcome of the vote in their riding is already known or that their candidate has no chance of winning.

For this reason, numerous respondents believe that a voting method introducing elements of proportionality would likely increase youth voter turnout. To that effect, this measure was strongly supported, at 84%.

In addition to the lack of interest, the respondents have pointed out cynicism toward politics for the poor turnout of youth at elections. We are referring to the disillusion, disengagement and lack of confidence in politicians and political parties, to the fact that all parties are alike and that politicians live in an ivory tower, to the feeling of helplessness, and finally to the media who fuel this cynicism.

So, to counter this ambient cynicism, the respondents stated that it should be explained why it is important to vote. The main arguments that the youth who we met would use for this purpose are as follows:

  • Voting is not only a right, but also a duty and a privilege;
  • Many millions of people throughout the word are fighting at the risk of their lives to obtain or exercise that right;
  • Not that long ago, women and First Nations people did not have the right to vote in Quebec;
  • Voting has a positive impact from both an individual and a collective point of view. This action can be seen as a source of personal fulfilment, as voters contribute to something beyond them or is seen as a form of expression, of participation and even of involvement within the community.

« Voting is a form of involvement, just like buying local products. »

To those who consider that their vote has no weight, the respondents suggested using of the following arguments:

  • If all young people showed up to vote, this would prompt political parties to pay more attention to issues that concern the youth, such as education and the environment. This argument is also used by the supporters of compulsory voting who state that by compelling citizens to vote, including youth, we would encourage political parties to take their concerns into account. We should mention that a little less than two-thirds (62%) of the respondents supported that idea;
  • A massive vote by young people could even modify the outcome of an election;
  • In a system where political parties receive public financing, every vote counts as each vote given to a political party allows it to receive a financial compensation.

“[…] A cancelled vote sends a stronger message than not voting.”
“If we add each vote, we can influence the outcome.”
“If the governments saw more people voting, they might not make as many cuts in the education budgets and would not increase tuition fees…”
“The percentage of young people who do not vote is high enough to tip the scale.”

To those who do not vote because they do not recognize themselves in the political parties, in the elected officials and in the current electoral system, the respondents are inviting them to get involved, to create their own party and to be candidates so that politics can be a reflection of themselves. The respondents also stated that abstaining from voting is like giving the others the power to decide their future and to give up their right to complain after the election. Finally, some respondents used more alarmist arguments to point out the very negative consequences of generalised abstentionism, including the impunity of elected officials.

Polling stations in cegeps and universities as well as electronic vote

Along with lack of interest and cynicism, the respondents mentioned personal and administrative reasons to explain why youth abstain from voting, notably the mobility of young people (moving frequently), the time required to register on the electoral list or even to vote and the fact that they are out of their riding during election time.

This is why they proposed firstly allowing students attending a postsecondary institution located outside of their original riding to vote in the new riding (this measure received the second highest level of support in the survey with 95%). Secondly, the respondents suggested allowing the electronic vote. This measure received a significant level of support, at 80%.

Citizens’ participation to recreate the social bond

Lastly, the respondents mentioned a change in attitude and values from an individual and collective standpoint to explain the decrease in voter participation of youth.

The respondents referred to changes made during the political socialization of youth from both an immediate surrounding standpoint (family, first of all) and the methods of information and communication (the arrival of Web 2.0 and social media). The respondents also mentioned individualism, neo-liberal values, consumer society and instrumental thought. Some said that the youth perceive the vote more like a choice than a duty and that they get involved differently, which could cause them to ignore the traditional forms of political participation, including turnout in elections. Finally, some make a link between the high rate of abstentionism among young people and the loss of meaning and common benchmarks in society.

Therefore, according to the vast majority of the respondents (91%), it is more important than ever to strengthen the social ties to redefine these collective benchmarks. To do so, they believe it is urgent to promote and encourage citizen participation. Documentation shows that the more involved young people get in traditional (political parties) and non-traditional activities (boycott, demonstrations, occupation, etc), the more they are likely to vote. Not only does citizen participation encourage the strengthening of the social ties, it also supports voter turnout.

Social media and the internet: the remedy?

Following the analysis of the answers, we were surprised by the low number of respondents who mentioned the use of virtual mobilization techniques to increase youth voter turnout. This finding was confirmed by the relatively low level of support for virtual measures compared to those associated with civic education previously mentioned.

“Conducting an electronic awareness campaign in social media” and “putting online a Politics 101 type website” received 68% and 54% support respectively compared to 96% for “giving a greater place to civic education in elementary and high school” and 88% to “organizing debates in cegeps and universities between candidates”. Such a finding is thought-provoking. Social media and the internet may not be the remedy in terms of youth voter turnout…

Chart 2: Summary of the analysis of the survey answers regarding the main reasons for abstention and the action strategies to counter them
Reasons for abstention Action strategies
Lack of interest Make civic education a priority
Reform the voting method by introducing proportionality elements
Cynicism Explain the importance of voting
Make voting compulsory
Increase political participation
Personal and administrative Allow students to vote at their cegep or university
Allow electronic vote
Change in attitude and values Promote and encourage citizen participation

In short, to increase youth voter participation, the respondents stated that we must first of all address their lack of interest toward politics by making civic education a priority and by integrating elements of proportionality in the current voting system.

Then, we must fight the cynicism toward politics by making convincing arguments and by encouraging political participation. Making voting compulsory, as a measure, received good support.

From an administrative point of view, we must also facilitate access to voting stations by allowing students to vote at their post-secondary institutions and by allowing electronic vote.

Finally, we must address individualism by valuing and encouraging citizen participation in all its forms.

Along with the action strategies, many recommended that we study further the lack of youth voter turnout by questioning the main people concerned: those who do not vote.

Chart 2 summarizes the main reasons for abstention mentioned by the respondents and the action strategies they propose to counter them.