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

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Over the past decade, a tremendous amount of resources have been devoted to tracking youth voter turnout. The evidence is quite clear: younger Canadians vote significantly less than older Canadians. Elections Canada estimates that voter turnout in the 2011 federal election was 38.8% for those aged 18-24 and 45.1% for those aged 25-34, compared with 71.5% and 75.1% for those aged 55-64 and 65-74 respectively. Blais and Loewen (2011) found that regardless of the socio-economic variables (education, income, etc), voter turnout increases with age.

However, young voters are not the only segment of Canadian society to exhibit a lower propensity to vote. Earlier evidence suggested that immigrants were somewhat less likely than other Canadians to vote and that the size of the turnout gap varied across different groups of immigrants (Black, 1987; Chui, Lambert, Curtis, 1991). Liviana Tossutti's (2007) analysis of the Ethnic Diversity Survey, the largest dataset available to investigate immigrants' participation in federal, provincial and municipal elections, came to a similar conclusion. She found that members of non-European immigrant groups displayed the lowest levels of electoral turnout. The above studies indicated significant variation in electoral participation across various groups of immigrants in Canada. Gidengil and Roy (forthcoming, 2015) help us make sense of that variation by highlighting that members of visible minority groups are least likely to vote. While past research has shown that Canadians belonging to visible minority groups, especially immigrants, experience the greatest difficulty in social and economic integration, Gidengil and Roy (forthcoming, 2015) indicate that this is also true in terms of electoral participation.

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 tries to provide a better understanding of the reasons why younger Canadians and visible minority Canadians tend to vote in smaller proportions than other Canadians. To do so, this report investigates the characteristics of voters among these groups of Canadians.Footnote 1

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 PDP aims at providing a better understanding of the way in which identity and attachment, views about federalism, attitudes toward ethnic diversity and immigration, political participation, as well as views on social, economic and political issues, differ across provinces in Canada.

The Provincial Diversity Project was conducted with the support of Léger Marketing, Concordia University, the Secrétariat aux affaires intergouvernementales canadiennes du Québec, the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society, Elections Canada, the Institute for Research on Public Policy and the Chaire de recherche du Canada en études québécoises et canadiennes de l'UQAM.

The Provincial Diversity Project survey was conducted online by Léger Marketing in the winter of 2014 and surveyed close to 10,000 Canadians. The Provincial Diversity Project survey has three components. The first component of the project provides a portrait of Canadians in each province. More than 6400 Canadians were interviewed in all ten provinces: 1000 respondents were interviewed in each of Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia; 500 Canadians were interviewed in each of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Manitoba and Saskatchewan; and 400 Canadians were interviewed in Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador. The second component of the project provides oversamples of visible minority Canadians in Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia; 400 visible minority Canadians were interviewed in each of the four provinces. Finally, the third component of the project provides regional samples of young Canadians (aged 18 to 34). The study interviewed 500 young Canadians in Quebec and 350 young Canadians in each of the following regions: the Atlantic, Ontario, the Prairies, and British Columbia. Elections Canada provided the financial support to conduct the young Canadian component of the survey (except for Quebec, which was funded by the Institute for Research in Public Policy).

The report relies on some of the strategic advantages of the Provincial Diversity Project. First, the project oversamples young Canadians and visible minority Canadians. Second, the project examines voter turnout in both federal and provincial elections. Third, the project examines the correlates of voting that are specific to each of the federal or provincial political dynamics. For instance, the report examines whether respondents are interested in federal politics and in the politics of their province, and it examines whether respondents would feel guilty not voting in federal elections and in provincial elections. This feature of the Provincial Diversity Project allows us to move beyond the examination of general political attitudes, to examine whether some federal and provincial-specific political attitudes structure Canadians' propensity to vote. The following political attitudes and characteristics are examined: interest in politics, feeling close to a political party, the perception that politics is too complicated, feeling that one has no say in what the government does, feeling guilty about not voting, feeling that one's vote can make a difference, frequency of political discussions at home during one's youth, confidence in the House of Commons, in the provincial legislature and in Elections Canada, attachment to Canada and the province, the perceived impact of government on one's life, and social trust.

Following existing research on voter turnout (Gélineau, 2013), we divide the correlates of voting into two groups: 1) socio-demographic characteristics and 2) political attitudes. The report thus begins by comparing the socio-economic profiles and political attitudes of younger and older Canadians, and those of visible minority Canadians and other Canadians. Second, it separately examines the characteristics of younger and older voters in federal and provincial elections, as well as those of voters who are members of a visible minority groups and those who are not. Third, the report examines the characteristics of younger voters and visible minority voters who are habitual non-voters (those who did not vote in both federal and provincial elections). Fourth, once we have identified some of the key characteristics of voters among younger Canadians and visible minority Canadians, the report evaluates to what extent these characteristics account for the gap in voter turnout between younger and older Canadians and between visible minority Canadians and other Canadians. Finally, the report provides a discussion on the role of low opinionation in explaining the lower voter turnout among younger Canadians and visible minority Canadians.

We start by exploring levels of voter turnout among Canadians in federal and provincial elections using the PDP. The PDP asked respondents to indicate whether they had voted in the previous federal and provincial elections. As indicated in Table 1, Canadians report having voted in the previous federal and provincial elections in broadly similar proportions. Moreover, and consistent with findings from existing studies, younger Canadians tend to vote less than older ones. While 88% of Canadians aged 35 and older report having voted in the last federal election, this proportion drops to 66% among those aged 25 to 34, and to 49% for those aged 18 to 24.Footnote 2 There is, thus, a 39-point gap between Canadians aged 18 to 24 and those aged 35 years and older. Similar gaps are observed in provincial election voter turnout. Also consistent with existing research, visible minority Canadians are less likely than other Canadians to report having voted in previous federal and provincial elections. The gaps are substantial: 16 points for federal elections and 18 points for provincial elections.

Table 1. Self-Reported Voting in Federal and Provincial Elections
  Age-Groups Visible Minority Status
Voted in last elections (%) 18-24 25-34 35+ Visible minority Canadians Other Canadians
Federal election 49 66a 88 a 68 84 a
Provincial election 50 65a 86 a 65 83 a
n= 971 2323 5007 2202 5609

Difference with 18-24 or visible minorities: a: p<.001; b: p<.01; c: p<.05.
Source: Provincial Diversity Project

Footnote 1 We use Statistics Canada’s definition of visible minorities, which is a “person other than Aboriginal peoples, who are non-Caucasian in race or non-white in colour. The visible minority population consists mainly of the following groups: Chinese, South Asian, Black, Arab,West Asian, Filipino, Southeast Asian, Latin American, Japanese and Korean.” To simplify the reading of this report, we often use at times "other voters" to refer to non-visible minority voters.

Footnote 2 These proportions clearly over-estimate the proportions of Canadians who actually vote in federal and provincial elections. Such an over-reporting of voter turnout is not specific to the Provincial Diversity Project; it has been observed in all of the Canadian Election Studies conducted over the last few decades.