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

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7. Conclusion and Policy Implications

Using data from the Provincial Diversity Project, this report explored the factors that explain the propensity of younger Canadians and visible minority Canadians to vote less than other Canadians. The most important question, however, is not so much why they did not vote in one particular election or another, but rather why some segments of these groups systematically abstain from voting at every election and at elections at different orders of government. For this reason, after exploring the correlates of voting among younger Canadians and visible minority Canadians in federal and provincial elections, we turned our attention to habitual non-voting. In any case, very few differences in correlates of voting were identified between federal and provincial elections.

Our investigations indicate as others have done before, that younger Canadians are not simply more likely to miss out on voting in one election from time to time, but that they are more likely to be habitual non-voters, that is to systematically abstain from voting at every election. Quite importantly, the study reveals that this is also the case for visible minority Canadians; they are more likely to be habitual non-voters than other Canadians.

The important question then became, why? In order to answer this question, we first identified the socio-demographic characteristics and political attitudes for which younger and older Canadians, and visible minority Canadians and other Canadians, differ. We then identified whether these characteristics were correlates of habitual non-voting. Finally, we estimated through simulations to what extent each of these variables could explain the gap in habitual non-voting between these different groups of the Canadian population.

Our analyses allow us to explain an important part of the gap in habitual non-voting between younger and older Canadians and between visible minority Canadians and other Canadians. While the explanations for younger Canadians relate both to their socio-demographic status and political attitudes, the explanation for visible minority Canadians relates mainly to their socio-demographic status. Our investigations thus reveal two groups of Canadians who are less likely to vote but who abstain from voting for somewhat different reasons.

More specifically, being a student appears to be an important factor to consider in explaining the gap in habitual non-voting between younger and older Canadians. Contrary to Gélineau (2013), we found that students are more likely to be habitual non-voters than non-students among younger Canadians, and that younger Canadians were more likely to be habitual non-voters than older Canadians in part because a larger proportion of them is still in school. Such divergent findings are puzzling, especially considering the key role that such a characteristic appears to play in explaining 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 lower propensity to vote in our study. We can however offer a tentative explanation as to why we believe it intuitively makes sense to expect students to vote less than non-students.

In the conclusion of his book, Paul Howe (2010) provides an in-depth reflection as to the broader roots of decline in voter turnout among the Canadian youth. His proposed argument refers to the emergence of what he calls a "extended adolescence" in which younger Canadians are experiencing a very long transition between childhood and adulthood. The main source of this change, Howe reports, would be the progressive increase over the past decades in the number of people who attend higher education and the prolonged length of that education. This "extended adolescence" would increase interactions with peers of the same age and limits the extent of their social responsibilities.

Of course, our findings do not provide a detailed and direct demonstration in support of Howe's thesis. It nevertheless provides one set of evidence that supports it, namely that students are less likely to vote than non-students. Arguably, students are precisely at this stage of "extended adolescence" in which they have increased interactions with peers and a limited set of social responsibilities. Students are at a stage of their life in which for the most part they do not have children, do not own a property, do not know if they are living in the city or province where they will settle down after completing their education, and do not know in which profession they will work or in which social class they will belong. Likely, such an extended stage of life in between the shelter and guidance provided by parents and the settlement into a more defined social positioning, might help explain why students are less likely to vote, and more broadly why younger Canadians are less likely to vote. Of course, this is a big conclusion based only on a limited set of evidence, but the point here is not so much to rule in a conclusive manner why younger Canadians vote less than older ones, but to further encourage the reflection and discussion as to what might be the consequences on voting of delayed social responsibilities, if there really is such a delay.

A weaker sense that voting is a civic duty is another main factor to account for a substantial part of the gap in habitual non-voting between younger and older Canadians. About half of younger Canadians do not feel guilty about the idea of not voting. This is substantially more than among older Canadians. It appears that remobilizing the Canadian youth in the electoral process (federal and provincial) must involve efforts as building this sense of civic duty. This study is not the first one to highlight such a finding (see Blais, 2000). On this matter, it is now time to move beyond the diagnostic stage of why younger Canadians vote less and to identify why younger Canadians are less committed to the norm that voting is part of their civic duty. We need to start identifying the promising avenues to favour the emergence of such a sense of civic duty. Many civic 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 is whether those programs are efficient in the long term, especially at instilling a stronger sense of civic duty.

Confidence is Elections Canada is the third factor to help make sense of why younger Canadians are more likely to abstain from voting than older Canadians. Younger Canadians express less confidence in Elections Canada than older ones, and such lower confidence in the guardian of elections appear 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 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. Do younger Canadians express less confidence in Elections Canada because they know little about the institution? Will confidence in Elections Canada grow as younger Canadians become older or will it stay lower? In short, is the lower confidence in Elections Canada among younger Canadians the reflection of the stage at which they are in their life cycle or rather the reflection of generational phenomenon? It was not possible to explore 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 further investigate in the future.

The fourth factor that helps explains why younger Canadians are more likely to be habitual non-voters than older Canadians is their greater disconnect from political parties. 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.

A final consideration that appears relevant to explain why younger Canadians are more likely to be habitual non-voters is their difficulty to articulate opinions about political matters. Our analyses indicate that younger Canadians are substantively more likely to provide "don't know" responses to political questions, and that such responses are significantly correlated with the likelihood of being a habitual non-voter. Of course, it is possible that such low 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 further explore. In any case, such lower levels of opinionation among younger Canadians arguably signals a disengagement with politics.

Turning to visible minority Canadians, we find that the situation is a bit different. The details of the story can be found in the section where the gap in habitual non-voting is explained. The core of the story is that the main two factors that explain why visible minority Canadians vote less than other Canadians relate to their socio-demographic situation. 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. This finding also applies to younger Canadians. What precisely impedes recent immigrants to vote 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.

The other main component as to why visible minority Canadians are more likely to be habitual non-voters than other Canadians is that they are on average younger. 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 too 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 to 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 to 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.