The health of any democracy depends on informed and engaged citizens. This section discusses voter turnout trends and the research done to understand why young Canadians tend to vote less than older Canadians, and how civic education can help get more young Canadians to the polls.
Trends in Overall Voter Turnout
Before the 1990s, voter turnout was 70% or higher in most federal elections. Voting rates declined in the following years, hitting a record low of 59% in 2008.
Figure 1: Voter turnout, 1972 to 2021
This downward trend reversed in 2011, and voting rates for the 2015 election were even more positive.
Overall voter turnout in 2015 reached 68.3%, and turnout for youth aged 18 to 24 increased the most of any age group. Over half a million more young Canadians voted than in 2011.
But in 2019 and 2021, overall voter turnout decreased by 1.3 and 4.4 percentage points, respectively. Youth voter turnout fell at an even greater rate, by 3.2 and 7.2 percentage points. Could this signal a downward shift in youth voting trends? Or could it be a sign that participation is stabilizing?
Voting Trends by Age
One thing has remained true in the last decade: there is a significant turnout gap between younger and older demographics. In 2011, the turnout for young voters was more than 35 percentage points lower than that for people in the 65-to-74 age group.
In 2021, the gap between these age groups narrowed slightly; youth turnout was 28 percentage points lower than that for the 65-to-74 age group.
Figure 2: Gap in voter turnout between younger and older demographics, 2021
Voting is habit forming. If a person votes in the first election after they turn 18, they will probably be a lifelong voter. On the other hand, those who do not vote in that first election are unlikely to pick up the habit later in life.
This graph represents the results of a study conducted with three cohorts of eligible voters between 1965 and 2011.
Figure 3: First-time voter turnout, 1965 to 2011
Why are fewer young people voting?
Elections Canada has commissioned several research studies to better understand why many young people are not showing up to the polls. This research is part of Elections Canada’s ongoing efforts to understand how barriers to voting are evolving.
From the 2015 National Youth Survey, the agency found two major barriers that prevented youth from voting: motivation and access. The survey found that compared with older voters, Canadian youth
- are less interested in Canadian politics
- feel less strongly that voting will make a difference
- believe that the government does not care what they think
- tend to see voting as a choice rather than a duty
In terms of access, the survey discovered that youth
- were less likely to receive a voter information card
- were less aware of the ways to register and vote
- perceived the voting process as too difficult (getting to the polls, proving their identity)
The research suggests that a key factor in overcoming these barriers is increasing the interest level and political knowledge of future voters.
The Value of Civic Education
Given all this research, Elections Canada knows that when it comes to preparing future voters to take part in civic life, education matters. In the 2015 National Youth Survey, young people who voted were much more likely to say that
- they learned about government and politics in high school
- they took part in a mock election
Creating future voters who are engaged and prepared to vote will require families, schools, government and others to work towards this goal. Our democracy depends on it!