First-Time Electors – Youth
It is well known that young people (aged 18–24) vote in fewer numbers than their elders. As early as the 1970s, social scientists and politicians became aware of lower registration and turnout in this age group. For a long time, it seemed that this was an effect of age (also known as the life-cycle effect), as people tended to vote more as they became older.
In the early 2000s, researchers identified two trends that have led to historic lows in youth turnout. First, they noted that newly eligible youth were voting at lower rates than they had in the past. Second, they observed that more recent generations of youth continued to vote less, even as they became older. These two trends explained in large part the decline in voter turnout in Canadian federal elections since the early 1990s. This prompted more research on youth political participation. The research showed that young electors face barriers to voting.
The 2015 general election disrupted this trend with an increase in overall voter turnout, mostly driven by youth. Between 2011 and 2015, turnout for electors aged 18–24 increased from 38.8% to 57.1%. Young electors' behaviour in the 2019 general election will show whether 2015 was an anomaly or the start of a longer-term increase in youth political participation.
Despite the increase in youth turnout in 2015, young people continue to vote at significantly lower rates than older electors. Elections Canada's research shows that young people, especially first-time voters, face significant barriers to participating in federal elections.
Knowledge of the electoral process
Young electors tend to have less knowledge of the electoral process and are more likely to say that it is difficult to find information about it. However, they are more comfortable with online resources than older electors.
- Electors need to be registered to vote and, in 2015, the majority thought it was easy to find information about registration. Just 8% of youth aged 18–34 and 4% of older adults had difficulty finding this information. The proportion was higher for first-time electors aged 18–22 (10%), Indigenous youth aged 18–34 (19%) and youth with a disability aged 18–34 (13%). (2015 National Youth Survey, NYS)
- While most people vote on election day at a regular poll, those who are not available on election day have several opportunities to cast a ballot. Young people are less aware of these opportunities than older adults. (NYS)
- In 2015, 54% of first-time electors aged 18–22 thought that there were no other ways to vote than at a polling station on election day. This proportion is 29% for older adults. Youth aged 18–22 were also more likely to say it was somewhat difficult to find information about the different ways to vote (19%) than older adults (7%). (NYS)
- Awareness of other ways to vote varies between different groups of youth. Unemployed youth are the least knowledgeable (62% believed that there is only one way to vote). Rural youth and youth with a disability are more knowledgeable, but still well below older adults (50% of both those groups were unaware of other ways to vote). (NYS)
- Advance polls are the most popular advance voting option. In 2015, only 25% of first-time electors were aware of this voting opportunity, compared to 65% of older adults (35+). (NYS)
- Despite these lower levels of knowledge and the perceived difficulty of looking for information, first‑time electors were more likely to have used Elections Canada's online voter registration system over the previous 12 months (30%) than older adults (12%). (NYS)
Young people move often, whether to study or to work. This can make it hard to provide a proof of address, to register or to update their registration. It also makes them less likely to receive a voter information card (VIC).
- Younger electors are much less likely than older electors to be on the National Register of Electors. In 2019, of a possible 369,000 eligible 18-year-olds, only 121,000 were registered to vote—a coverage of 33%. This rate increases to 56% for electors aged 19, 68% for electors aged 20, 75% for electors aged 21, and upwards of 80% for electors aged 22 and older. For electors aged 35, coverage is estimated to be 99%. (National Register of Electors Update)
- In 2019, of a possible 387,000 eligible 18-year-olds, only 121,000 were registered to vote—a coverage of 31%. This rate increases to 56% for electors aged 19, 68% for electors aged 20, 75% for electors aged 21, and upwards of 80% for electors aged 22 and older. For electors aged 35, coverage is estimated to be 99%. (National Register of Electors Update)
- Due to this lower coverage, younger electors benefit the most from election period registration and revision activities. In 2015, among 18-year-olds, registration rates went from 27% at the call of the election to 65% on election day, an increase of 38 percentage points. (2015 Retrospective Report)
- Given this lower coverage on the Register, it is not surprising that in 2015, first-time electors were less likely to say they received a VIC (69%) than youth overall (76%) and older adults (94%). Among youth, Indigenous youth (66%) and unemployed youth (67%) were the least likely to report receiving a VIC. (NYS)
- One reason for this could be that residential mobility is higher between the ages of 20 and 29 than at any other age (calculated from the 2016 Census data). In 2016, 26% of Canadians aged 20–24 and 29.2% of those aged 25–29 had moved in the previous 12 months; this proportion was 13% for the overall population. A recent move could mean that their registration is not up to date, and it may make it more challenging to have a proof of address for their current residence.
Proving their identity or address was a significant barrier to voting for youth.
- In 2015, among the reasons Canadians reported for not voting, 7.6% were related to the electoral process. Youth aged 18–24 were more likely to report not voting for these particular reasons (11.5%). Of first-time electors, 4.6% reported not being able to prove their identity or address, compared to 2.7% of the overall population. Young electors were also the group most likely to leave a polling place and not vote due to the inability to prove their identity or address. (Labour Force Survey)
- When comparing voters and non-voters who said that proving their identity and address was either somewhat difficult or very difficult, some differences are observed. Twelve percent of youth non‑voters felt that proving their identity and address would be either somewhat or very difficult, compared to 5% of youth voters. Youth with a disability (24%) and ethnocultural youth (14%) who did not vote were more likely than those who did vote (11% and 5%, respectively) to perceive that proving their identity and address would be difficult. (NYS).
Interest in and attitudes towards voting
Young electors' attitudes towards voting differ from those of their elders. This explains part of the gap in turnout between younger and older electors.
- Researchers have long observed that turnout is higher among those who see voting as a civic duty, rather than a choice. Nearly half (48%) of first-time electors aged 18–22 consider voting to be a choice, while 44% believe it is a duty. Older adults are more likely to view voting as a duty (64%) rather than a choice (36%). Unemployed youth aged 18–34 are especially likely to consider voting a choice (60%). (NYS)
- New electors are less likely to say they were interested in the election (46%) than youth aged 30–34 (52%) and older adults (76%) (NYS).
- A quarter (24%) of first-time electors aged 18–22 said they were not interested in Canadian politics, compared to 7% of older adults. (NYS) Unemployed youth showed the lowest level of interest in Canadian politics, with close to a third (31%) who said they were not interested. (NYS)
- Nearly half (46%) of first-time electors aged 18–22 say they “do not think government cares much about what people like them think.” This proportion is very similar to other age groups, including older adults, but it is higher among Indigenous youth (59%), youth with a disability (55%) and unemployed youth (55%). (NYS)
- Half (50%) of first-time electors aged 18–22 thought that “sometimes politics and government seem so complicated that someone like me can't really understand what's going on.” This proportion was 58% for Indigenous youth and 57% for ethnocultural youth. (NYS)
Young electors are less likely to be involved in electoral politics through mobilization by political parties and candidates, or through family socialization.
- Only 23% of first-time electors were contacted by a political party or candidate during the 2015 federal election; the proportion was 29% for all youth aged 18–34, and 59% for older adults. (NYS)
- Youth are also less likely to say that they often talked about politics at home when they were growing up. This proportion was 22% for first-time electors (18–22), compared to 33% for older adults (35+). This is significant as the family remains an important social setting to discuss these topics (31%), compared to friends (22%), spouse/partner (12%), classmates (18%) and colleagues (15%). (NYS)
Did you know?
There is a difference between an elector and a voter. An elector is every Canadian citizen 18 years of age and over. A voter is a Canadian citizen who has voted.
Visit Elections Canada's Inspire Democracy website for other research and tools on youth participation.
Click here Information for First-Time Voters – Youth to see the programs and services designed to address the barriers to voting that first-time youth electors face.
Go to Inspire Democracy to learn more about how Elections Canada and our network of stakeholder organizations are working together to address some of the barriers to getting involved with elections.