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What Parties do to Engage and Mobilize Youth: A Literature Review of Five Countries

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Executive Summary

This review provides Elections Canada with an overview of academic research that illuminates how candidates and political parties engage and mobilize young electors. It first reviews the relevant literature about how candidates and political parties reach out to youth through engagement and mobilization. The main challenges to party outreach are then identified. The review investigates five case studies in greater depth – Canada, the US, the UK, New Zealand and Finland – and highlights notable practices among the cases for youth engagement and mobilization. It concludes with points of consideration for the Canadian context and suggested areas for future research.

The review illuminates three main challenges to youth outreach strategies:

  • Youth are harder to contact than their older counterparts.
  • Youth lack partisan attachments, which may deter their mobilization by parties.
  • Youth may not be interested in political activity, or their interests, priorities and evaluations may be seen to be different from older age groups.

There are several important considerations for candidates and parties creating youth outreach strategies:

  • The distinction between non-voters for a party's engagement and mobilization of youth is critical. This is still a relatively under-researched area, but the literature suggests that intermittent non-voters and habitual non-voters require different types of outreach in order to be engaged and mobilized.
  • Youth can be effectively mobilized, and face-to-face efforts by a peer appear to be the most effective.

The jurisdictional comparison of youth outreach across case studies finds that:

  • Finland is a leading example of youth party membership. Every major party maintains a youth wing – most of which appear to have an influential voice within the mother party.
  • The US is an innovator in terms of mobilization. The willingness of the Democratic campaign to surrender some control over campaign tasks to supporters generated a new pool of volunteers who worked to mobilize their own social networks online and offline.

The literature, on the whole, does not offer a thorough understanding of how parties engage youth between elections. The review makes a number of recommendations for future research in Canada.

Although it is difficult to provide best practices, the literature suggests that there is not necessarily a trade-off between election-driven behaviour and behaviour that fulfills parties' other functions as public utilities. Greater inclusion and participation by youth would not only enhance Canada's democratic health, it can be a part of a successful long-term electoral strategy for a party.