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Management and Information Technology

Political scientist explores voter turnout

Political science professor Lawrence LeDuc (photo by Kelly Rankin)

“Excuse me,” said the young woman sitting at  the next table. “I’ve been listening to your conversation and I think politicians rely on students not voting.”

The young woman was fourth-year political science student Semra Sevi.  The conversation she politely interrupted was a discussion with Professor Lawrence LeDuc of political science about voter turnout for the upcoming provincial election.

LeDuc, whose research interests include political behaviour and elections, was discussing research he and some colleagues had done concerning non-voters: in particular, work that came out of a 2002 study conducted on behalf of Elections Canada that looked at who the non-voters were and why they weren’t voting.

Elections Canada statistics show that there has been a steady decline in voter turnout over the past two-decades.

 LeDuc said about four-fifths of older people (age 55 and up) vote compared to a quarter of young people. This is partly explained by considering population replacement patterns (deaths and those just reaching voting age).

 “Over a normal election cycle three per cent of the electorate is replaced by a different three per cent,” he explained.

However, LeDuc said demographics and generational data only provide a small part of the picture.

“Elections are complex events,” he noted. “There is so much going on in any given election.”

Following the non-voter study, LeDuc and his colleagues decided to study young people because they were “stunned to see how wide the spread was between young and old,” he said.

For the federal election in 2008, they decided to follow young people throughout  the campaign. They recruited 33 participants under 25-years-old through Facebook and asked them to participate in the  study for the duration of the campaign.

Participants answered a series of questionnaires about politics in general, as well as topics that arose during the campaign; they were also invited to contribute comments to an open blog.

“We got a lot of soft data from this and interesting comments,” said Leduc. “It really opened my eyes to using something like Facebook as a research tool.”

The researchers discovered that there wasn’t one good answer to why young people are not more engaged in politics and that for most of them it’s really more of a socialization process.

“They’ve grown up not paying a lot of attention to politics,” added LeDuc. “Politics is not a big part of their world. Unlike with older voters, not voting is socially acceptable.”  

However, as Sevi pointed out, “Students and young people are not the same thing.” Adding, “Students do vote, young people who are not students are not voting.”

LeDuc agreed and explained, “Young people vote less. But if you’re a young student you’re more likely to vote than a young non-student, because education matters.”

“If education is a priority, as politicians say, if they tell us we are the future, then why don’t they engage us?” asked Sevi.

Simply put, politicians go where the votes are.

LeDuc said campaigns invest heavily in constituencies where there is a good chance of winning and these typically include older voters.  

“If you know where your most reliable voters are, you go there first,” he added.  

When asked about the upcoming provincial election, LeDuc replied, “The election is shaping up to be fairly competitive. The NDP is trying to ride the Layton legacy; that may matter a bit.”

“You’d have to speculate, if [voter turnout] does go up, it won’t go up much,” he added.

His paper about the 2008 election campaign study, “Facebooking” Young Voters in the 2008 Federal Election Campaign: Perceptions of Citizenship and Participation, will be published in the Canadian Journal of Political Science.