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Voter Turnout among Younger Canadians and Visible Minority Canadians: Evidence from the Provincial Diversity Project

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Executive Summary


Although it is increasingly well documented that younger Canadians and visible minority Canadians tend to vote less than other Canadians, the causes of this variation in voter turnout are less clear. This report investigates the causes of this greater propensity to abstain among younger Canadians and visible minority Canadians. It looks at voting in federal elections, but also at voting in provincial elections, and most importantly it looks at the propensity to abstain in both levels of elections, what can be qualified as habitual non-voting. The report compares younger Canadians (aged 18-24 and 25-34) and older Canadians (aged 35+), as well as visible minority Canadians and Canadians who are not members of a visible minority group.

This report relies on the Provincial Diversity Project (PDP). The PDP is a research platform led by Antoine Bilodeau (Concordia), Luc Turgeon (Ottawa), Ailsa Henderson (Edinburgh), and Stephen E. White (Concordia). The Provincial Diversity Project survey was conducted online by Léger Marketing and surveyed close to 10,000 Canadians during the winter of 2014, including oversamples of young Canadians (n=1900) and visible minority Canadians (n=1600).

Overview of the Results and Policy Implications

The findings confirm that younger Canadians and visible minority Canadians tend to vote less than other Canadians. This holds for federal elections and provincial elections. Moreover, our investigations indicate as others have done before, that younger Canadians are not simply more likely to abstain from voting from time to time, but rather that they are more likely to be habitual non-voters, that is to systematically abstain from voting at every election. While only 10% of Canadians aged 35 years and older report not having voted in both federal and provincial elections, this proportion increases to 31% among the 25 to 34 and to 47% among the 18 to 24. Among visible minority Canadians, the proportion of habitual non-voters is 29% in comparison to 14% among other Canadians.

The findings indicate that younger and older Canadians differ from each other on some key socio-demographic characteristics and political attitudes. Younger Canadians are more likely to be students and to some extent are more likely to be recent immigrants. Moreover, younger Canadians are also less likely to feel close to a political party, less likely to feel guilty when not voting, and also less confident in Elections Canada.

Younger Canadians are also different from older Canadians on other characteristics investigated in this report. The differences for the above-mentioned characteristics are especially important, however, because these characteristics are predictors of being habitual non-voters. Overall, the findings indicate that younger Canadians' profile in terms of greater likelihood of being a student, being a recent immigrant as well as their lower propensity to feel close to a party, to feel guilty when not voting, and their lesser confidence in Elections Canada, together explain about two thirds of the gap in their greater propensity to be habitual non-voters. The reasons why younger Canadians are less likely to vote thus appear to be rooted both in their socio-demographic characteristics and their political attitudes.

Some of these findings are surprising. This is particularly the case for the finding that students are more likely to be habitual non-voters. Contrary to Gélineau (2013), we found that students are more likely to be habitual non-voters than non-students among younger Canadians. In effect, the study suggests that younger Canadians are more likely to be habitual non-voters than older Canadians in part because a larger proportion of them are still in school. Such divergent findings with Gélineau's are puzzling, especially considering the key role that such a characteristic appears to play in our analyses to explain the gap in habitual non-voting. It is difficult to determine why being a student is correlated with a higher propensity to vote in Gélineau's study and with a lower propensity to vote in our study. We nevertheless offer a tentative explanation in the conclusion as to why we believe it intuitively makes sense to expect students to vote less than non-students. Briefly, following Howe's argument (2010), a prolonged education would contribute to create an “extended adolescence” in which increased interactions with peers of the same age and delayed social responsibilities would lead to a lower propensity to vote.

The role of confidence in Elections Canada is another novel finding, although intuitive. Younger Canadians express less confidence in Elections Canada than older ones, and such lower confidence in the guardian of elections appears related to a lower propensity to vote. Interestingly, it holds beyond voting in federal elections; it is also related to habitual non-voting. This suggests that ensuring the strong integrity of the electoral process and of the institution in charge of administering the electoral process is essential to ensure that younger Canadians engage more with the electoral process and even to ensure that all Canadians continue to vote.

Fortunately, Canadians as a whole appear to express a strong level of confidence in Elections Canada, more so than in the legislative bodies of the federal and provincial governments. An age-gap exists, however, between younger and older Canadians, and it partly explains why younger Canadians are more likely to be habitual non-voters. We did not investigate the reason why younger Canadians express less confidence in Elections Canada than older ones, but the consequences are real and clear: younger Canadians vote less than older ones. These are thus questions Elections Canada might want to investigate further in the future.

The report also sheds an important new light on the role of “opinionation” in the propensity to vote. In essence, younger Canadians are less opinionated than older Canadians (that is they are less likely to hold or express political opinions), and the findings indicate that those less likely to hold opinions are more likely to be habitual non-voters. Among the reasons why younger Canadians vote less is that they have not yet formed substantive opinions on many political issues, especially those relating to the functioning of political institutions in Canada. Of course, it is possible that such lower levels of opinionation might essentially reflect a lack of knowledge about politics, something we could not account for in this study. This nevertheless points to another possibility to explore further. In any case, such lower levels of opinionation among younger Canadians arguably signal a disengagement from politics.

Other findings are less surprising but nevertheless equally important as the ones above. About half of younger Canadians do not feel guilty about the idea of not voting. This is substantially more than among older Canadians, and this gap in a sense of civic duty substantially helps to explain why younger Canadians are more likely to be habitual non-voters. It appears that remobilizing Canadian youth in the electoral process (federal and provincial) must involve efforts at building this sense of civic duty. This study is not the first one to highlight such a finding (see Blais, 2000). Many voter education programs have been initiated over the years, such as CIVIX's Student Vote program for elementary and high school students or Elections Canada's Choosing our Mascot for primary schools students. The question that we need to investigate now is whether those programs are efficient in the long term, not only at teaching about voting, but also at instilling a sense of civic duty among younger Canadians.

The greater disconnect with political parties among the youth is another important factor to explain why younger Canadians are more likely to be habitual non-voters than older Canadians. The solution to youth disengagement with electoral politics thus appears to be in part in the hands of parties who need to find ways to reconnect with the Canadian youth.

Younger Canadians are not the only group examined in this report. Visible minority Canadians, like younger Canadians, are also more likely to be habitual non-voters. The reasons why they are more likely than other Canadians to be habitual non-voters are somewhat different, however, and can be summarized in two points. First, a large proportion of visible minority Canadians in our sample are recent immigrants (24%) and recent immigrants appear more likely to be habitual non-voters. What precisely impedes them from voting during their first decade in Canada remains to be identified. The optimistic prospect, however, is that visible minorities born abroad but who have lived in Canada for more than 10 years appear as likely as the rest of the population to vote. If anything, this suggests that the challenge of voting for members of visible minority groups who are immigrants is only temporary. Government efforts at stimulating and facilitating voting in this group of Canadians should therefore be targeted primarily at recent immigrants.

Second, visible minority Canadians are on average younger than other Canadians. Since we know that younger Canadians vote less and that visible minority Canadians are younger than the rest of the population, it is not then surprising to observe that they vote less. In other words, trying to understand why visible minority Canadians vote less is at least in part the same task as finding out why younger Canadians vote less. By finding ways to address low voter turnout among youth, governments and community partners are simultaneously tackling another task, namely stimulating voting among Canadians of visible minority background. Programs targeting younger Canadians, however, need to be built around the socio-demographic reality that a significant proportion of Canada's youth is of a more diverse ethnic and racial background than it used to be.

To conclude, it is important to emphasize that the different propensity to vote between visible minority Canadians and other Canadians is not rooted in political differences, but mostly in socio-demographic differences. There are some differences in the political attitudes of visible minority Canadians and other Canadians but these only marginally explain the gap in voting between the two groups.