The real reasons why young people don’t vote

If you thought young people don’t care about politics, you may want to take a look at the data.

If you’re in political circles long enough, especially if your favourite party loses, inevitably the discussion will come around to the youth vote. In particular, people complain that their party lost because young people didn’t come out to vote, that they don’t care about politics.

Well, a little over a year ago, Elections Canada published data on voter turnout during the 2019 federal election and why some people didn’t vote. There’s some information in there that I think will surprise some people.

First of all, voting among young people wasn’t lower than in previous recent elections.

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For those 18–24 years old, turnout was 68.4%, and it was 71% for those 35–44. These were pretty close to what they were in the 2015 election, which was 10 points higher than it was in 2011.

On the other hand, voter turnout for the general population was 77.1%, so young people weren’t that far behind older groups. Plus, 18–24-year-old voters were up 13 points in 2019 from 2011, the largest increase of any age group.

From their 56,000-household survey, Elections Canada grouped all the non-voting responses into the following 4 categories:

  • Everyday life reasons (45.9%)
  • Political reasons (41.9%)
  • Electoral process reasons (5.4%)
  • All other reasons (6.8%)

Everyday life reasons

Among voters who were 18–24 years old, 45.7% cited “everyday life reasons”, compared to 45.9% for all non-voters.

In particular, young voters were more likely to not vote because they were too busy (25.5% vs. 21.6%) or out of town (14.7% vs. 11.3%). They were less likely to not vote because of illness or disability (5.6% vs. 13%).

Political reasons

Interestingly, young people who didn’t vote were less likely than the general population to pick a political reason overall for not having voted. Although it was the second most likely category for not voting, only 39.1% of voters between 18 and 24 gave this reason, compared to 41.9% of the general population voters.

The most common political reason for both groups not voting was an apathy toward politics in general, but they were basically the same response (35% for 18–24 and 34.6% for general). So, young people weren’t any more likely to not vote out of apathy than other groups.

Lack of information about campaigns (0.8% vs. 0.7%) and not knowing who to vote for (1.5% vs. 1.8%) were also neck and neck.

What was surprising were the areas where young voters were less likely than the general population to not vote. For example, 3.9% of the general population who didn’t vote indicated a dislike for the candidates, parties, and campaigns. That number was only a third as high (1.3%) for young people.

As well, 0.9% of the general population who didn’t vote said they didn’t think voting would make a difference. Not a single youth voter cited that as their reason for not voting. No one.

Electoral process reasons

This area had the largest spread between youth voters who chose these reasons and the general population who did. 8.2% of young people chose these reasons, as compared to only 5.3% of the general population.

More specifically, 2.8% of those 18–24 said they didn’t vote because they couldn’t prove their identity, while about half that many (1.6%) of the general population cited that as their reason.

Also more prominent among young voters for not voting was not being on the voter lists (1.1% compared to 0.4%), lack of knowing when and where to vote (1.8% vs. 1.1%), and issues with their voter information card (1.9% vs. 1.1%).

There were two reasons that the general population was more likely to choose for not voting: polling stations being too far away and lineups that were too long. For the former, the general population indicated 1.1% and young voters 0.5%. On the other hand, no young voters cited lineup length as a reason for not voting.

All other reasons

All remaining reasons were pretty neck and neck for the two groups, with 7.0% of young voters choosing these reasons and 6.8% of the general population.

Young voters were more likely to have forgotten to vote (1.6% vs. 1.2%), but the general population was more likely to not vote for religious reasons (1.3% vs. 0.7%) or the weather (0.1% vs. 0.0%).

All other reasons were 4.6% for young voters and 4.2% for the general population, so again, pretty similar.

Top 10 reasons why young people don’t vote

Here are the top 10 reasons why young people didn’t vote, compared to how the general population fared in the same reasons. These 10 reasons account for 95% of the young people who didn’t vote.

Not interested in politics35.0%34.6%
Too busy25.5%21.6%
Out of town14.7%11.3%
Illness or disability5.6%13.0%
Other reason4.6%4.2%
Could not prove identity or address2.8%1.6%
Issues with the voter information card1.9%1.1%
Lack of information about the voting process1.8%1.1%
Forgot to vote1.6%1.2%
Did not know who to vote for1.5%1.8%

So, by far, the most common reason for young people not voting in the 2019 federal election was because they just weren’t interested. In fact, it was used by 1 in 3 voters. And that probably fits in line with how people view young voters.

That being said, the general population was pretty much in the same spot. Political apathy isn’t unique to just young people, at least not in the 2019 election.

For the second reason, 1 in 4 young people said they were just too busy. And while the spread is larger between them and the general population on that reason, compared to the top reason, the general population isn’t that far behind.

Frankly, the youth population was on track with the general population in most areas. The ones where there was a significant difference between the two groups were almost all related to the electoral process itself.

The other 8 reasons collectively accounted for 34.5% of those young people who didn’t vote. And nearly every one of them was a logistical reason.

What all this tells me is that maybe we’re a bit too hard on the youth. Maybe we’re putting more blame on them than they should be bearing.

Maybe it’s not the youth failing us. Maybe we’re failing the youth.

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By Kim Siever

Kim Siever is an independent queer journalist based in Lethbridge, Alberta. He writes daily news articles, focusing on politics and labour.

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