More on fixing the voters: the B.C. evidence

The BC Stats 2009 Elections BC Post-Election Voter/Non-Voter Satisfaction Survey adds some heft, I think, to my post yesterday on the disengagement of younger adults from political life. Only 51 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot in British Columbia’s May 12 election, a dismal turnout.

A few key findings of the study (below the jump):

— Older people were much more likely to vote than younger people. Almost half of all voters (49 per cent) were 55 or older, but only 20 per cent of non-voters were that old.

— Asked if they are “interested in what is going on in politics,” 81 per cent of voters said they were, while only 48 per cent of non-voters claimed an interest.

— Why did most non-voters not vote? Fully 35 per cent said they were just too busy, or out of town, or for some other reason couldn’t get to the polls. Another 16 per cent admitted they didn’t know enough; just seven per cent cited pessimism; five per cent said it was inconvenient; and nine per cent had other reasons.

So here’s the picture in very broad strokes. Non-voters tend to be young and uninterested. Very few of them decide not to vote because they reject the choices. Most just can’t be bothered.

There were some insightful comments to my earlier post. But also, with respect, some reflex ones about how young people don’t see anything meaningful in contemporary politics, how the news media don’t present stories about what’s really important in politics, and how parties don’t offer compelling platforms.

All valid points. But the research suggests these factors are not central. The main reasons potential first-time voters don’t bother to turn out have to do with apathy and ignorance, rather than informed alienation.

There’s always a temptation to respond to the points I’ve raised, and the research I’ve cited, by dismissing it all as “kids-these-days” crankiness. But that’s too easy. It might feel better to say, “Hey, the kids are alright,” but that’s not what the evidence tells us.




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More on fixing the voters: the B.C. evidence

  1. Can anyone tell me when the last Canadian election was – federal or provincial – where youth voter turnout was above 50%?

  2. Not sure I see the point. Non-voters display ignorance and apathy. And wouldn't people who never watch football be ignorant about the players, likely contenders and apathetic about whoever won the cup so forth too? What the kids need is a reason to care enough to overcome their ignorance and apathy in the first place.

    Assuming there is one that is.

    You're stealing a base in your argument, you are taking it as a given that they should care. But why should they?

    • Quite right—I take it as a given that they should care. If we're going to start by allowing that it's defensible to say, 'Politics doesn't matter,' then we're going to have a very long argument.

      • Issues of apathy and engagement, and of democracy, are never short arguments. Nor should they be: they're complex and not often well defined.

        The process of making people care – about anything – is always a long one.

      • Interesting. So it's a duty then? Something that the good people should be preaching at kids, making them feel morally obligated to do?

        Let's go way back. When your typical forty to fifty voter of today was back in high school and university twenty-five years ago, they may well remember cheerfully singing along to this lyric:

        "We learned more from a 3-minute record, baby
        Than we ever learned in school"

        What makes you think that young people today are any different? That they are likely to listen to some hectoring old guy telling them they are supposed to care, that he doesn't have to prove they should; i.e. that he doesn't have any burden of proof at all on his side?

      • But Mr. Geddes, politics don't matter right now. Just like being informed about current events doesn't matter, (mostly because of widespread failures in leadership and the weaknesses of our electoral system). Both of these should matter but acknowledging the reality has to be the first step. Otherwise, younger people just feel that they're being lecture to and that doesn't work and never has.

      • Shouldn't we try to figure out why politics doesn't seem to matter to a significant portion of our young citizens before we decide that such a position is indefensible?

        Perhaps they have extremely good reasons for being uninterested and uninvolved. Perhaps, on the basis of their situations they are making exactly the correct decision (to be uninvolved) and that we should all stop fretting about a non-issue.

  3. Let me try boiling down my long-winded idea from last night:

    I don't think it's "kids these days", so much as "culture these days". In a society where the individual is prioritized and the central symbolic, emotional and functional focus, the communal and compromising nature of political discourse (heck, of just choosing a party to vote for) is increasingly repellent to each generation.

    From which I don't mean to suggest we have to change political systems. it's a logical impossiblity to have them satisfy overly personalized desires, like choosing the tunes on and IPod. But I would argue that political education, and the focus of parenting, might be adjusted to include a better grounding in the value of collective decision making (and a realistic sense that none of us can realize a world perfectly rendered as we wish).

  4. Another thought, an awful lot of the political education kids get these days is activist-based. Do something about the environment, fight hatred and racism and so forth. As this type of education has increased voter participation has decreased. (before anyone says it, yes, correlation does not et cetera.)

    But the whole justification for this activist-based approach was it would get kids to care more, to be more involved. At the very least, it hasn't worked. It is reasonable to ask if it hasn't had the reverse of the intended effect.

  5. Another thought, an awful lot of the political education kids get these days is activist-based. Do something about the environment, fight hatred and racism and so forth. As this type of education has increased youth voter participation has decreased. (before anyone says it, yes, correlation does not et cetera.)

    But the whole justification for this activist-based approach was it would get kids to care more, to be more involved. At the very least, it hasn't worked. It is reasonable to ask if it hasn't had the reverse of the intended effect.

  6. Another thought, an awful lot of the political education kids get these days seems to be activist-based. Do something about the environment, fight hatred and racism and so forth. As this type of education has increased voter participation has decreased. (before anyone says it, yes, correlation does not et cetera.)

    But the whole justification for this activist-based approach was it would get kids to care more, to be more involved. At the very least, it hasn't worked. It is reasonable to ask if it hasn't had the reverse of the intended effect.

  7. Another thought, an awful lot of the political education kids get these days is activist-based. Do something about the environment, fight hatred and racism and so forth. As this type of education has increased youth voter participation has decreased. (before anyone says it, yes, correlation does not et cetera.)

    But the whole justification for this activist-based approach was it would get kids to care more, to be more involved. At the very least, it hasn't worked. It is even reasonable to ask if it hasn't had the reverse of the intended effect.

  8. 40% were out of town, or it was inconvenient. Make voting digital.

    • I thihk you are onto something there. I'm very engaged politically, but why do I have to show up a polling booth to vote when I can do almost everything else, including file my income tax return and pay my taxes online?

      I was at a reading this morning (The Peep Diaries: How We're Learning to Love Watching Ourselves and Our Neighbors, by Hal Niedzviecki) about social networking and the author cited the example of two teenagers in New York who were trapped in a sewer pipe. Instead of using their cell phones to call 911 they updated their facebook pages and their "friends" called for emergency assistance. It's flabbergasting to think that they are so disengaged from actual community resources they didn't think to just call for help themselves, but interesting that their social media strategy actually worked.

      Maybe more kids would vote if the vote, and more of the decision making (i.e. town hall meetings, etc.) were held in the "community" where they actually enage with other citizens.

      • You do see who they keep picking to win those Idol shows, don't you?

      • I wrote this on yesterday's post but here's a proposed system, of direct democracy.

        We could still have MPs. Here's how it could work. Every vote in the house of commons, includes all the citizen's votes, managed by an online secure system. In order to keep from being swamped with emails, and rss updates about upcoming bills, you can have a default representative, an m.p. in which you will vote with by default, either the m.p. you elected or someone you've preset who you will support, (experts on individual files), That way only bills of interest will only occupy your time.

        Bills will still be written by MP.s. And elections will determine who will have the authority to present bills in the house. Either elections will be set on a certain timescale, or the lowest preforming MPs, (MPs who have the least amount of people investing their default votes with them) will be forced to contest for an election. For now, MPs can still represent geographical ridings, but I'm not sure if that will be necessary in our cosmopolitan future.

        The regional disparities and tyranny of the majority can be overcome by the senate NOT ELECTED!!! Because I'm not sure if this mass democracy will be prone to mania's and panics.

    • I'm wary of jumping to solutions when the problem hasn't been analyzed carefully. I actually don't take much stock in these self-reporting surveys that claim to explain why people didn't vote.

  9. Turnout at the panel which prompted you post yesterday was about 50% under 30 from what I saw. While one panel in downtown Toronto is hardly a great sample for participation in general, younger people were over-represented there, if anything.

  10. Another thought, as a journalist, do you have any pull with these pollsters? I ask because a really interesting parallel line of questioning would be to look at the level of awareness of taxes paid these young people have. And how much taxes do they pay? Is there any correlation between the amount of taxes people pay and the likelihood of their voting?

    • Likelihood of voting is a model-based presumption, which may or may not reflect reality come election day. You could probably correlate likelihood to vote with income (not taxes paid), but that still wouldn't give you causation. Just because two things happen at the same time doesn't mean one causes the other.

      • Oh good heavens. Correlation doesn't imply causation. Thanks, I had no idea.

        Second, we are talking about two things. You are talking about models that pollsters use to make predictions about who from a polling sample is most likely to actually vote. But it is also possible to study various groups and see what percentage of them actually do vote. You can get a fairly accurate reading by conducting a poll and asking them if they did vote.

        This whole thread is based on such research on a certain group, youth, and their likelihood of voting and that is that there is something important about this particular correlation, age and likelihood of voting. Nobody is assuming that the mere correlation proves a pattern of causation. Rather, Geddes is starting from the correlation and looking for causes that might explain it.

        My counter suggestion is that another correlation might matter more. If there is a correlation between amount of taxes paid and likelihood of voting, then maybe that suggests a potential explanation that makes more sense. That young people are less likely to vote because they don't have much invested in the outcome. (By the way, there is very good evidence in other jurisdictions to suspect that there is a correlation between who pays the most in taxes and their likelihood of showing up at the polls, it would be nice to se a pollster look into this in Canada.)

      • Oh good heavens. Correlation doesn't imply causation. Thanks, I had no idea.

        Second, we are talking about two things. You are talking about models that pollsters use to make predictions about who from a polling sample is most likely to actually vote. But it is also possible to study various groups and see what percentage of them actually do vote. You can get a fairly accurate reading by conducting a poll and asking them if they did vote.

        This whole thread is based on such research on a certain group, youth, and their likelihood of voting and that is that there is something important about this particular correlation, age and likelihood of voting. Nobody is assuming that the mere correlation proves a pattern of causation. Rather, Geddes is starting from the correlation and looking for causes that might explain it.

        My counter suggestion is that another correlation might matter more. If there is a correlation between amount of taxes paid and likelihood of voting, then maybe that suggests a potential explanation that makes more sense. That young people are less likely to vote because they don't have much invested in the outcome. (By the way, there is very good evidence in other jurisdictions to suspect that there is a correlation between who pays the most in taxes and their likelihood of showing up at the polls, it would be nice to see a pollster look into this in Canada.)

      • Oh good heavens. Correlation doesn't imply causation. Thanks, I had no idea.

        Second, we are talking about two different things. You are talking about models that pollsters use to make predictions about who from a polling sample is most likely to actually vote. But it is also possible to study various groups and see what percentage of them actually do vote. You can get a fairly accurate reading by conducting a poll and asking them if they did vote.

        This whole thread is based on such research on a certain group, youth, and their likelihood of voting and that is that there is something important about this particular correlation, age and likelihood of voting. Nobody is assuming that the mere correlation proves a pattern of causation. Rather, Geddes is starting from the correlation and looking for causes that might explain it.

        My counter suggestion is that another correlation might matter more. If there is a correlation between amount of taxes paid and likelihood of voting, then maybe that suggests a potential explanation that makes more sense. That young people are less likely to vote because they don't have much invested in the outcome. (By the way, there is very good evidence in other jurisdictions to suspect that there is a correlation between who pays the most in taxes and their likelihood of showing up at the polls, it would be nice to see a pollster look into this in Canada.)

        • I'm of the opinion that amount of tax paid is an intermediate variable, not the base of causation. I say this because the amount you pay in taxes is contingent on a number of things, not the least of which is your income. I agree that having a vested interest in the outcome of a vote would make one more likely to do so – but there are millions of taxpayers out there who don't vote and who, by the taxes they pay, should have a significant vested interest in the outcome. Research surveys have studied this, in Canada too. They're just not publicly available, much to my chagrin.

          In most surveys, significantly more individuals will tell you that they've voted than who actually do according to elections bureaus. I would posit that this result is because the people who don't vote are also more likely to reject taking an opinion survey. Alternately, people lie: but that's an uncomfortable and unverifiable conclusion.

          • You may be right about it being an intermediate value. I'd be more inclined to phrase it that it might be a marker for a number of other things.

            You're also right about data not being publicly available. Slight break for a pet peeve of mine: The chief villain here is Statistics Canada that continues to withhold its raw data from other researchers. No government agency has done more to undermine the principles of access to information than Stats Can and they have gotten a free ride from journalists on the issue.Stats Can data is taxpayer funded and it is easy to strip identifiers from this data, there is absolutely no reason it shouldn't be available. Rant over.

            And yes, people do lie to pollsters but a good pollster can compensate for these things fairly well. Polling data is not worthless (well, some pollsters' data is worthless but that's another argument).

        • I might also suggest that young people are less knowledgeable about politics because they've had fewer years on the planet to read, see, and hear about it. Or, because their concerns and engagements are personal in nature – trying to finish school, build friendships, find a job – and once they're established in society, their concerns become more broad in nature.

  11. I am not certain that your conclusions that the 'ignorance' and 'apathy' of young voters does actually preclude the significance of "how the news media don't present stories about what's really important in politics, and how parties don't offer compelling platforms".

    I think a further question or two seems required. Did they actually try to get informed, found themselves unable and thus felt ignorant and apathetic? Or are electoral apathy and ignorance more inherent traits than that?

  12. I am 25, I vote.

    That being said, I think low young voter turn out might have something to do with the fact that politicians and policy makers do not give a F$#% about young voters. When was the last time an election campaign promised any thing for young voters. No politicians are about appealing to young voters with important issues (at least not in any meaningful way). Take, for example, youth unemployment, at its highest in years…but no, we are more concerned about those workers who have had long tenures, not those who are struggling to enter the work force. Or how about tuition fees, or the environment…..The list goes on. Baby boomers got plenty of social programs when they were growing up, and now that they are older they get upset at the thought of raising taxes to pay for some new ones. Stop being so selfish and realize that we need to make some decisions for the future, decisions that will benefit baby boomers too!

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