Elections Canada takes aim at disengaged young Canadians
OttawaCitizen.com – news/elections
January 29, 2011. By Don Butler, The Ottawa Citizen
Elections Canada is commissioning a major new national survey as it searches for new ways to encourage disengaged young Canadians to vote.
With an estimated cost between $100,000 and $250,000, the project will survey 2,500 people between the ages of 18 and 34 who are disabled, unemployed or aboriginal, live in rural areas, or speak neither English nor French as a first language.
It’s all part of a “youth research action plan” Elections Canada hopes will help it reach out to a segment of the population that’s increasingly tuning out electoral politics.
Only 37.4 per cent of voters ages 18 to 24 cast ballots in the 2008 federal election. Turnout by young voters has been dropping steadily since the 1960s, when about seven in 10 of those eligible to vote for the first time went to the polls.
The drop-off in youth participation is largely responsible for the overall decline in Canadian voter turnout over the past two decades. Just 58.8 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots in 2008 — a record low.
While young voters are more likely to vote as they get older, “They are beginning at such a low level of participation that overall turnout can only be expected to decline,” says a 2009 paper commissioned by Elections Canada, the agency that conducts federal elections and referendums.
“That’s a major concern,” says Elections Canada spokesman John Enright. “Surveys are showing us that if we don’t capture them and get them interested and engaged at their first opportunity to vote, we’ve likely lost them forever. They’re going to remain disengaged throughout their lives.”
It’s possible the survey results could influence how Elections Canada communicates its message during the next election campaign, Enright says.
“If there’s low-hanging fruit, we’ll act on it immediately. But I suspect some of it is going to require a little bit more tweaking of our product to finesse that messaging.”
The reasons for the drop in youth voting remain elusive.
“We do not know much about the causes of this decline,” admits the 2009 paper by political scientists Andre Blais and Peter Loewen.
The new survey is part of Elections Canada’s effort to better understand those causes. Bidders have until Jan. 28 to submit proposals, with a final report expected by June.
Elections Canada identified youth engagement as a key priority in its 2008-13 strategic plan. It commissioned other youth surveys after the 2008 election that are nearing completion and will be published in the next month or two.
“It’s an ongoing process to try to understand what is making that group tick and how we can reach them better with our communications,” Enright says.
Among other things, the new survey will try to identify barriers to participation and determine the values, attitudes and behavioural factors linked to voting or non-voting.
It also hopes to identify what Elections Canada calls “possible interveners” —musicians, activists, social media sites — that young Canadians are listening to, then use those channels to deliver its message.
“If they’re telling us that they’re not hearing us,” Enright says, “who are they hearing? Is it best to reach them through some sort of social media? Or is it best to continue to put our efforts and our moneys into traditional advertising campaigns?”
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