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National Youth Survey Report



In 2008, Elections Canada implemented a five-year Strategic Plan 2008–2013, which identified youth engagement as one of three strategic objectives. The National Youth Survey was commissioned to provide research findings to allow Elections Canada to better target and tailor its outreach activities and educational initiatives to Canadian youth aged 18 to 34. The study generated information on the voting behaviour of youth in general and was used to develop profiles of youth subgroups – namely, Aboriginal youth, ethnocultural youth, unemployed youth not in school, youth with disabilities and youth residing in rural areas. With the large representative sample and significant number of respondents from key subgroups, the National Youth Survey provides a unique portrait of youth voting behaviour in Canada.


The study consisted of a telephone survey of a national random sample of 1,372 youth, yielding an estimated response rate of 34%,Footnote 1 with an overall margin of error of ±2.6% at the 95% confidence interval. An additional 1,293 interviews were completed with youth from subgroups recruited through a variety of purposive (non-random) methods. Inclusion of the purposive sample provided rich descriptive information about traditionally hard-to-reach youth, but results may not be nationally representative.

Key Findings

Electoral Participation

When youth were asked about all elections since they had been eligible to vote, approximately 46% of youth in the national random sample said they were habitual voters, 20% were frequent voters, 21% were occasional voters and 13% were habitual non-voters. Slightly fewer than three quarters (74%) reported that they had voted in the May 2011 general election. When considering these participation rates, it is important to note that surveys consistently overestimate participation when compared to data on voter turnout. However, studies show that over-reporting tends to affect all respondents to some extent (regardless of subgroup) and that surveys can still be reliably used to identify factors associated with voting and non-voting. The survey also included a considerable sub-sample of self-reported non-voters, both within the national random sample (n=366) and the sample of subgroups (n=731).

Education was associated with participation in voting in the general election, with higher participation by people with higher educational attainment. However, education was highly correlated with other factors associated with higher voting participation, such as older age, increased motivation, increased political knowledge and increased exposure to influencers. Low income was also a predictor of not voting.

Barriers to participation in the 2011 general election were considered in terms of motivation (attitudes, interest and political knowledge) and access (knowledge of the electoral process, personal circumstances and administrative barriers). Those who are otherwise able to vote but do not want to are said to face motivation barriers, while those who want to vote but cannot are said to face access barriers.

When survey respondents were asked to provide their main reason for voting or not voting, many voters cited the importance of voting as a civic duty or to express opinions and views. Issues related to access barriers were cited by 64% of non-voters, while 33% cited issues related to motivation. Nearly half of those who reported access barriers (30% of all non-voters) cited specific personal circumstances related to being at school/work all day, taking care of family/children or being too busy. When a regression analysis was performed taking into consideration multiple variables, access and motivation barriers were shown to have about an equal impact on the likelihood of voting.

When barriers to voting were explored through a question that asked respondents to evaluate multiple factors related to their decision to vote or not, key motivational factors included:

  • Agreement that all political parties were the same (15% of youth voters versus 23% of youth non-voters).
  • Disagreement that at least one party spoke to issues relevant to youth (5% of youth voters versus 15% of youth non-voters).
  • Disagreement that voting was a civic duty (3% of youth voters versus 24% of youth non-voters).
  • Lack of political interest (88% of youth very interested in Canadian politics voted versus 28% not at all interested).
  • Low levels of political knowledge (90% of youth voters who were able to correctly answer all three questions used to assess political knowledge voted, versus only 24% of youth who were unable to answer any).

Key access factors included:

  • Not knowing where or when to vote (25% and 26% of non-voters, respectively, versus 3% and 2% of voters).
  • Personal circumstances (46% of non-voters reported having difficulty getting to the polling station as an influence on their decision).
  • Administrative barriers, including difficulty in providing ID, were identified by 15% of non-voters (versus 2% of voters).
  • Not thinking that voting in a federal election was easy or convenient (18% of non-voters versus 2% of voters).

Youth who voted reported being influenced by politicians (especially by direct contact with a party or candidate), the media and family. They were also more likely to have discussed politics with their family both currently and while growing up.

Electoral Participation by Subgroups

Participation in the May 2011 general election by Aboriginal (First Nations and Inuit but not Métis) and unemployed youth was substantially less (both at 42%) than for the total overall voting rates in the national random sample (74%). Participation by youth with disabilities (55%), ethnocultural youth (61%) and those living in rural localities was also lower than for the national random sample.

Youth in the subgroups differed from those in the national random sample. Motivation barriers that were more prevalent included having less political knowledge and less interest in Canadian politics. Motivation barriers related to attitudes were also important, such as not thinking that government plays a major role in their lives, by voting they could make a difference or that there is at least one political party that speaks about issues important to them.

Access barriers were also more prevalent. Youth in subgroups were less aware of electoral processes, less likely to have received a voter information card (VIC) and less likely to think that they would feel welcome at the polling station.

Within each subgroup, when youth voters and non-voters were compared, both motivation factors and access barriers significantly influenced voting participation. Within all subgroups, non-voters' lack of interest in the election was a key predictor of their voting behaviour.

Lack of knowledge of the electoral process (such as knowing where or when to vote or the different ways of voting) was associated with non-voting by youth in the subgroups (with the exception of youth with disabilities). Not receiving a VIC was significantly associated with not voting for ethnocultural, unemployed and youth with disabilities. Difficulty in getting to the polling station was also a common barrier associated with not voting by all subgroups, with the exception of youth with disabilities. However, this may be because both voters and non-voters among youth with disabilities were affected by this barrier.

Other characteristics of low participation were specific to particular groups, including:

  • Being First Nations or Inuit or living on reserve (Aboriginal youth).
  • Using television as a main source of information (ethnocultural youth).
  • Being less knowledgeable about politics (youth with disabilities and rural youth).

In the bivariate analyses, youth from the subgroups appeared to have fewer influencers. In the regression analyses, the lack of family influence on the decision to vote constituted a significant barrier for all groups, with the exception of unemployed youth.

Interventions with the Potential to Increase Electoral Participation

A regression analysis performed with the national random sample clearly demonstrated that both motivation and access barriers influence youth voting. The interventions with the most immediate potential to increase youth electoral participation are those that address access barriers. Increasing process knowledge, mitigating challenges associated with personal circumstances and removing administrative barriers to voting are all important.

Youth who have positive attitudes toward politics and democracy, and who are interested in and knowledgeable about politics, were more likely to vote than less motivated youth. Although increasing youth motivation to vote is more difficult than mitigating access barriers, there are still actions that can be taken to reduce these barriers in the long term.


Studies on voting behaviour have emphasized three key reasons why people choose not to be politically active: because they cannot, because they do not want to be and because nobody asked. Interventions with the potential to target access barriers include:

  • Increasing the information provided to youth about how, when and where to vote.
  • Increasing awareness of methods of voting other than going to the polling station, especially for youth with disabilities and youth in rural localities.
  • Reviewing processes for distributing the VIC to increase the extent to which these cards reach youth, especially youth who are very mobile.
  • Considering the location of polling stations (placing them where youth non-voters are likely to be) and finding ways to make them more welcoming to youth.
  • Developing strategies to ensure that polling stations are "child-friendly" to mitigate access barriers for parents.

Interventions mitigating motivation barriers also have the potential to increase youth voter turnout. Suggestions include:

  • Developing targeted youth communication strategies and educational products to increase knowledge about politics, democracy and citizenship in Canada.
  • Providing information about politics and democracy relevant to youth, particularly youth in the subgroups.

In developing interventions, Elections Canada must take into account the characteristics and circumstances of youth non-voters, including lower educational attainment and the barriers associated with specific subgroups. Targeted interventions could also be developed based on the demographic profiles of youth and youth subgroups in different ridings. In this context, this report provides recommendations on tailoring interventions to address the access and motivation barriers of non-voters in general and non-voters in each subgroup. This report also provides recommendations on directing communication efforts to specific websites that youth with lower educational levels are likely to visit.

Influencers have the potential to motivate youth to vote by providing reasons to vote, "asking" them to vote and telling them how to do so. The National Youth Survey found that other stakeholders have a role to play in influencing and mobilizing youth. Key influencers were identified as family, politicians in general and the media. Further information is required to understand how to use influencers to increase youth voting participation.

Footnote 1 An estimated response rate includes an estimation of the number of refusals who would have been eligible to participate in the survey as most refusals occurred before eligibility could be determined.