11/29/2011 02:51 EST | Updated 01/29/2012 05:12 EST

Increasing Youth Voter Turnout: Easier Said Than Done


Youth voter turnout appears to have increased in the last federal election, but just barely: 38.8 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds cast a ballot in 2011, compared with 37.4 per cent in 2008. While any increase in democratic participation is a good thing, this obviously leaves plenty of room for improvement.

Given that, it's not surprising that Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand recently called for a comprehensive national strategy to engage young voters in Canada. He's talking about the type of strategy that involves all electoral stakeholders and addresses the decades-long decline in youth voter participation.

This is no small undertaking. There will no doubt be plenty of discussions both inside and outside of Elections Canada about what an effective national strategy looks like, and hopefully the opportunity for healthy debate amongst everyone affected -- including young people. With this in mind, it seemed fitting to start such a debate by putting in my two cents.

To be effective, the kind of national strategy Mayrand is suggesting must do three things: target those youth who can (but don't) vote, actively mobilize these youth by asking them to vote, and accurately measure its impact.

Targeting Youth Who Can (But Don't) Vote

For the last decade, election agencies across Canada have focused on classroom civic education programs as a key element of their youth outreach strategies. This was reasonable, given that education is positively associated with participation in elections.

Unfortunately these civic education programs don't have any noticeable effect on voter participation. In 1999, the Ontario government introduced mandatory civics classes for all high school students. The result? Nothing. There was no measurable impact on youth turnout in Ontario, and studies in the U.S. have found similar results.

This is hardly surprising. Ask the average 24-year-old how much they remember from any high school class and you'll quickly understand the problem. An effective national youth engagement strategy should therefore focus on the millions of 20-something Canadians who aren't voting, and not just students currently in junior high and high school who can't vote yet.

Asking Youth to Vote

An effective national strategy should also invest in tactics that actively mobilize youth. As Elections Canada's new national youth survey results -- and Mayrand's comments -- make clear, the key issue is not convenience. Online voting has now been tested in several jurisdictions, and it hasn't been a silver bullet for low voter turnout. Similarly, seven provinces and territories ran elections this fall with a focus on making voting more convenient, yet turnout hit record lows across the country.

So what does work? The answer is simple: Ask young people to vote. Elections Canada's survey results show that young people who were contacted by a political party were significantly more likely to cast a ballot than those who weren't (83 per cent versus 68 per cent). Having a parent, friend, or roommate who talks about politics also makes young person more likely to participate. There are dozens of rigorous field experiments that reinforce the same basic conclusion: if you ask them, they will vote.

This type of active mobilization is important because young Canadians are currently the group least likely to be solicited: only 40 per cent of them were contacted in any way by a party or candidate during the last federal election. Changing that is a crucial part of any comprehensive strategy, and that means changing what political parties, NGOs, and community organizations do in order to mobilize young voters.

Making Sure That it Works

Finally, a national youth strategy should measure the impact it has on young voters. Elections Canada does a great job of collecting data, be it through surveys like the one cited above, or simply by counting how many youth cast a ballot. As part of a truly national strategy, provincial and municipal election agencies should follow suit. Without reliable data about who votes and who doesn't, it's impossible to effectively steer this type of national initiative.

A national youth strategy is a good start in addressing the challenge of declining youth voter turnout, especially one that recognizes the need to involve stakeholders at all levels in meaningful dialogue. But once we have had that debate, moving from strategy to effective action, will be easier said then done. We will need put aside current quick-fix approaches to youth voter mobilization that have limited effectiveness; be it vote mobs (sorry, Rick Mercer) or reaching out to just students or already engaged young leaders -- and ensure that we're focusing on the more difficult to implement strategies that will actually lead to getting youth to the polls in the long run.