YOUTH VOTER TURNOUT: AN INTERNATIONAL APPROACH TO WHY YOUTH VOTING IS DECLINING
AUTHOR: HOLLY O'HANLON
Holly has just begun her second year at The University of Western. She is pursuing an honours specialization in political science. A notable area of interest for her is how world events impact the business world.
Youth voter turnout is in decline all over the world. Statistics reveal that valuable opportunities offered up by democratic governments such as having the privilege to have a say in the political system through elections are not valued by many millennials. Voter turnout is essential to having a successful democracy, and youth are especially important as they are the leaders of tomorrow. This essay explores how Canadian youth voter turnout has declined for cultural reasons. As a point of contrast, declines in youth voter turnout in Ireland will also be examined, and reveal very different reasons for this trend. These findings suggest that there are several global trends impacting this recent phenomenon of declining youth voter turnout.
Ireland and Canada present two very interesting cases when looking at the decline in youth political participation. Both countries have a parliamentary democracy, share a similar culture/lifestyle, and speak the same language. They do however differ in terms of youth political engagement. Canadian youth are more likely to be disengaged with politics for culturally related reasons of political apathy where individuals do not see the point in political engagement. Ireland on the other hand holds a population of youth that are willing to participate in politics, but feel the system is not addressing their needs and can be improved upon. It is essential that these countries turn around this pattern in order for their governments to be successful. Citizens need to vote and be willing to share their opinions through political engagement at all levels of the political process. If youth are not participating today and this trend continues, the future of politics is endangered.
Canada is unique in that youth are unable to see the value of political engagement causing voting levels to be nowhere near what they should be. In an analysis completed by Caroline Blais, she states that, “the most recent generations are less prone to vote in good part because they pay less attention to politics”(1). This general decline in youth voter turnout results from a change in culture in which youth show a lack of interest in politics, limited knowledge surrounding politics, as well as taking the right to vote for granted. Many youth feel that politics do not directly impact their daily lives, and choose to focus their attention elsewhere. Youth in high school are not impacted by matters involving taxes, balancing the budget, and the future of the Canadian Pension Plan. That being said, even when issues directly impacting young people are outlined in the political agenda, “these messages are just not registering with a significant proportion of younger Canadians”(2). Youth are not taking the time to watch parties outline their causes or reading the newspaper to see what issues are being promoted proving that the messages are not resonating with their cohort. It ultimately comes down to a lack of motivation, and the thought that youth cannot make a difference within a system that is perceived to be apart from them and their reality. Contrastingly, in Ireland youth have not been reluctant to vote for cultural/generational reasons, but because politically they do not feel their system of governance reflects their generational concerns. Unfortunately, the Canadian lack of interest amongst the young means that when voting periods come along, youth are unable to form an opinion causing them to just not vote in the first place.
The overall lack of interest by youth towards politics can also be attributed to a general deficiency of knowledge surrounding politics. When looking at the lack of knowledge associated with youth, and the ensuing lower level of political participation, this is seen to be a generational effect (3). In the 2015 federal election, a study was taken to gather up the most popular reasons for youth not voting and, “the most cited reason was a lack of knowledge or political confidence” (4).
Most youth do not prioritize staying up to date with politics, which contributes to their limited knowledge on the subject matter. With no background information on candidates or issues, it is next to impossible to form a reasonable opinion on a candidate creating a decline in votes.
Lastly, for Canadian youth, politics are not deemed to be as important as they once were. Youth did not have to fight for the right to vote or to form a democracy, but were instead born into a world in which that was the norm. Norman Ruff, a professor at University of Victoria states, "It didn't used to be that way I think largely because we've lost the sense of the obligation to vote"(5). When voting was something that people fought for especially women, people looked at voting as a privilege and something they had to do to be a participating member of society. Now, it can seem like a hassle for youth, especially when they have no interest or knowledge on the subject matter. Today’s Canadian youth population definitely takes the right to vote for granted unlike ancestors who felt it was their duty to vote.
Although lack of knowledge and interest in politics are also reasons for why youth do not vote in Ireland, there is the issue of youth being less inclined to vote for more politically and educationally inclined reasons. Irish youth feel the existing political parties do not represent their needs. All over the UK, youth struggle to identify with a political party that represents their requests. It is not that youth are uninterested in politics as in Canada, but rather they are, “disillusioned with politicians and political parties who ignore them and their issues” (6). Issues such as the environment, employment, and gay rights are what youth want to see more representation for. Without these topics being represented, it proves difficult for youth to want to participate when the issues they feel most strongly about are not being addressed.
There is also the influence of the economy on voter turnout. Ireland has a weaker economy when compared to a country like Canada. Ireland has a nation-wide GDP of 294.1 billion, which is drastically smaller than Canada’s 1.43 trillion GDP (7). When compared to Canada, Ireland has less money to be spending on social programs impacting voter morale: “voters feel less inclined to support and participate in a political system when governments show restraint in public expenditures on health care and social security” (8). If Ireland wants to see improvements in their voter turnout, further spending on social programs will encourage participation at the polls. Unlike in Canada, Irish youth feel their political representatives are not doing enough for the public, and fulfilling all of their responsibilities to the citizenry. Youth see a system that holds few opportunities, and that can be very discouraging. For these reasons, Ireland’s economy is in fact playing a role in the declining levels of youth voter turnout.
Not only is Ireland worse off economically, but also educationally which further impacts voter turnout. In Ireland, the education system is completely funded by the central government, and officials are beginning to recognize that individuals with more education are more likely to recognize the values of democracy making them more likely to vote (9). The amount of youth wanting to pursue a post-secondary education has been in decline. In 2012 only 8% of students were thinking of not attending university, meanwhile in 2016 that number rose to 14% (10). Education provides individuals with the cognitive skills needed to form a well thought out opinion, and by improving this sector for the future, voter turnout has the potential to improve.
It is important to acknowledge the general trend of the decline in youth voting, however in contrast to these trends both Canada and Ireland have seen some improvements in turnout in recent years. That being said, it can be questioned whether these upward trends will actually sustain themselves into the future. For Canada, the recent 2015 federal election saw great improvements in youth engagement. Youth voter turnout increased by 18.3% helping Justin Trudeau become Canada’s prime minister (11). Such a significant change can be attributed to a deep craving for a change in government as well as more social media outreach. In future years this increase in turnout will most likely not last unless the overall population believes that drastic changes need to be implemented as in this past election. Most experts say that 2015 was a special year and a one off (12). At around the same time in Ireland, a referendum for same-sex marriage occurred which engaged a large portion of youth voters. This was an issue that sparked engagement from all individuals across the country so once again, it is unlikely this trend of engagement will continue for the general elections (13). Both of these once-off incidents prove that youth do in fact have the capacity to be engaged in politics, however it is not a consistent trend that can be relied upon for the future.
To conclude, youth voter turnout is in decline in both Canada and Ireland. This will not be sustainable for the future, because democracy requires citizen involvement and participation to be successful. Lack of involvement degrades and damages democracies leaving leadership open to threats from ultra-right and left-wing groups that can ultimately damage society. Significant changes need to be made to turn this issue around, such as appealing more to young people’s beliefs and social media habits, improving the political education of youth when in high school, and overall increased stress on how powerful the youth sector and its vote can be. Additionally, offering new methods of voting such as online will make the process less cumbersome, and provide people with more incentive to vote. It will not be easy to do this but is essential to ensuring the world continues to stay politically engaged and creating the best possible results for nations. Canada will have to focus on the more cultural/generational issues they face with regards to youth voting, whereas Ireland will look into the economic/political reasons for youth not being politically engaged.
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CBC News, “It didn't used to be that way': Why voter turnout is so low in B.C. — and may be worse this week” CBC News, May 8, 2017.
Colletto, David. “The Next Canada: Politics, political engagement, and priorities of Canada’s next electoral powerhouse: young Canadians.” Canadian Alliance of Student Associations.
Esser, Frank and Claes H. de Vreese, “Comparing Young Voters’ Political Engagement in the United States and Europe,” American Behavioral Scientist Journal 50 (May, 2007): 1195,
European Anti-Poverty Network Ireland, “Consistent Poverty Rates”
Ireland, Dept. of Children and Youth Affairs, National Youth Council of Ireland, A New Age in Voting (Dublin, Ireland)
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Pells, Rachel. “Number of young people planning to go to university falls to the lowest level in eight years,” The Independent, August 9, 2017.
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(1) Johnston, R., J. S. Matthews, and A. Bittner. 2007. "Turnout and the Party System in Canada, 1988-2004." Electoral Studies 26 (4): 735-745. doi:10.1016/j.electstud.2007.08.002. http://resolver.scholarsportal.info/resolve/02613794/v26i0004/735_tatpsic1.
(2) Parliament of Canada, Library of Parliament Research Publications, Youth Voter Turnout in Canada (Ottawa: Legal and Social Affairs Division, 2016)
(3) Anderson, Cameron D., and Elizabeth Goodyear-Grant. “Youth Turnout: Adolescents’ Attitudes in Ontario.” Canadian Journal of Political Science 41, no 3 (2008): 697-718. Doi: 10.1017/S0008423908080773.
(4) David Colletto. “The Next Canada: Politics, political engagement, and priorities of Canada’s next electoral powerhouse: young Canadians.” Canadian Alliance of Student Associations.
(5) CBC News, “It didn't used to be that way': Why voter turnout is so low in B.C. — and may be worse this week” CBC News, May 8, 2017.
(6) Ireland, Dept. of Children and Youth Affairs, National Youth Council of Ireland, A New Age in Voting (Dublin, Ireland)
(7) World Bank of Canada
(8) Frank Esser and Claes H. de Vreese, “Comparing Young Voters’ Political Engagement in the United States and Europe,” American Behavioral Scientist Journal 50 (May, 2007): 1195,
(9) Ma, Yuanyuan. 2017. Civic returns to education: Voter turnout in ireland. The Economic and Social Review 48, (2) (Summer): 145-169, https://www.lib.uwo.ca/cgi-bin/ezpauthn.cgi?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/1919407581?accountid=15115 (accessed March 15, 2018).
(10) Rachel, Pells, “Number of young people planning to go to university falls to the lowest level in eight years,” The Independent, August 9, 2017.
(11) "Young Voter Turnout Jumped Sharply in 2015 Contest, Elections Canada Reports." 2016.The Canadian Press, Jun 15. https://www.lib.uwo.ca/cgi-bin/ezpauthn.cgi?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/1797583651?accountid=15115.
(12) Laura, Harmon. 2015. “Marriage Referendum Engaged Young People – Can parties now court them?” The Irish Times.
(13) Michael, Urban. 2016. "2015 Voter Turnout was a One-Off." Winnipeg Free Press, Jul 09. https://www.lib.uwo.ca/cgi-bin/ezpauthn.cgi?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/1814177734?accountid=15115.