Thank you, Mr. Chair, and good evening, everyone.
Mr. Chair, distinguished members of the Special Committee on Electoral Reform, ladies and gentlemen of Parliament, I would first like to thank the House of Commons and its members for creating and establishing the Special Committee on Electoral Reform and for the efforts you are making to consult the people and a variety of experts on this matter, which is so basic for the future of democracy.
The Institut du Nouveau Monde (INM) is pleased to present its vision to you. The vision comes from our expertise in citizen participation and from the range of consultations we have held with young people from 18 to 34 years of age who have taken part in our citizenship schools in recent years.
I will begin my presentation by providing you with some of the main observations on electoral participation by young people from 18 to 34 years of age. I will then present some bold reforms that seem to us to be essential in order to reverse the dramatic trend of declining electoral participation by Canadian youth.
First let me introduce myself and provide you with an overview of the Institut du Nouveau Monde. My name is Dominic Vézina. I am a strategic advisor for democratic institutions, citizen education and youth, a new position at the INM.
Founded in 2003, the INM is an independent, non-partisan organization, active mainly in Quebec, whose mission is essentially to increase citizen participation in democratic life. The INM operates from a perspective of social justice and inclusion, respecting democratic values and sustainable development principles, in a spirit of openness and innovation. The INM also publishes its annual L’état du Québec, a reference publication that analyzes the main social economic issues of the day in Quebec.
I now want to offer you some observations on electoral participation by young Canadians.
In recent decades, electoral participation by young Canadians has dropped sharply. An annual decline has now been confirmed for more than 40 years. Since the participation rate has gone from 70% in the 1960s to around 30% in 2004, it seems important to us to examine the matter and to take action in order to reverse this trend.
Even more concerning as a phenomenon is the constant, significant decline in the rate of initial participation in elections. By that we mean the decreasing participation of members of the new cohorts who are voting for the first time. This indicates a serious problem. It is the point at which we are breaking with our youth, a point that we have called generational suicide.
The literature we have consulted and summarized in our brief, in particular the studies by Elections Canada, provides information on the key determinants of youth voter turnout, or lack thereof. Whatever the case, all agree that it is imperative to deepen our understanding of the phenomenon by conducting national investigations and studies, both quantitative and qualitative, after each election.
That said, all available data point in the same direction: one of the most promising approaches to truly reversing the decline in young voter turnout is to increase initial voter turnout.
The INM supports the idea of reforming the current electoral system, but that change alone would not have the desired medium- and long-term impact. For the reform to be sustainable, it must, in our opinion, go hand in hand with an overall strategy aimed at improving young people’s skills in civics, starting in their teenage years.
In our view, the main public target must be those aged from 16 to 21. They are the ones who are just about to acquire the right to vote, or who will be voting for the first time. That is why civics education courses in high school, college and university have a central place in the strategy we are proposing to you today. Before we present that strategy, let us first summarize the key findings from the literature we have consulted.
We observe that, while certain socio-demographic characteristics—such as age, education and birthplace—have some influence over the decision of 18- to 34-year-olds to vote, there are three particularly influential factors: perceiving voting as a duty, taking an interest in politics, and being informed.
The key factors cited by young people as keeping them from voting are not the direct opposites of those motivating them to go to the polls. The two main reasons for 18- to 34-year-olds not voting are a lack of interest in politics and being too busy. The third reason for not voting varies with a subdivision of the age range: 18- to 24-year-olds blame problems with registering to vote, while 25- to 34-year-olds blame cynicism, a factor that seems to emerge later than the other factors analyzed.
What are the five bold reforms we are proposing?
I repeat that the INM supports reforming the current electoral system in order to increase young voter turnout. We also propose, in conjunction with all those involved, the complementary development of a comprehensive strategy to develop civic literacy among young people.
The INM proposes a bold strategy beginning with instituting a “civic rite of passage” in late adolescence. This strategy, informed by INM-led consultations, calls for major reforms. It is based on a renewed vision of democracy in which electoral participation is not only desired but expected and encouraged, and in which voting is not just a right but also a duty and a responsibility.
The civic rite of passage is based on five substantial reforms.
The first reform is a compulsory civics course in high school. Civic education is the surest way to get young people interested in politics. One of the main reasons young people do not vote is that they do not understand how politics affect them personally. A compulsory civics course should be given in Grade 9, while school is still compulsory, so that it is taught to everyone. As well, mock voting should be available to all students for each election.
All the studies show that, the sense of duty notwithstanding, young people vote if they are interested by politics and are informed. Those are the second and third reasons that explain why they vote.
Comparative studies, especially those by Henry Milner, show that voter turnout is larger in countries with a high average degree of political literacy. They also show that a dedicated compulsory civics course can make a difference. Norway and Sweden are excellent examples of this. General voter turnout in both countries is 85%, with young voter turnout at over 75%.
The second reform involves voting at 16. Lowering the voting age to 16 is then warranted. Young people will have just received civics education, preparing them to vote in an informed way. They are motivated and helped along the way. This is the start of the civic rite of passage we are proposing. All 16-year-olds, still in their classrooms, would vote together for the first time in an institutional context that supports their commitment. There should be a ceremony to celebrate their eligibility to vote, similar to the citizenship ceremony for new Canadians.
The third reform is voluntary civic service for 16- to 24-year-olds. It has been shown that commitment and participation produce even more commitment and participation. One way of supporting the commitment and the participation of young people once they have left school is to offer them the possibility of serving their communities in voluntary civic service.
The fourth reform that we are proposing is to make voting compulsory, with the option of casting a blank ballot. To emphasize the fact that voting is not only a right but also a duty, we believe that consideration should be given to compulsory voting. Compulsory voting is the policy in about 30 countries, including countries similar to ours, such as Belgium and Australia. Compulsory voting should allow for voluntary abstentions through what is called casting a blank ballot, allowing a voter to register a rejection of all the parties if none of them is appealing. Compulsory voting would also force all the parties to appeal not only to their base but to all voters, including young people.
The fifth reform is to implement a semi-proportional voting system. Research shows that one reason young people do not vote is that they feel their vote does not matter. The composition of Parliament therefore does not reflect the actual diversity of the electorate. Introducing a new voting system that includes a proportional aspect would give voters the sense that their vote matters.
Our basic belief is that youth voting is critical for the future of our democracy. We therefore hope that the committee's recommendations will not only make our electoral system more representative, but will also provide us with a better capacity to educate and motivate our young people in the exercise of citizenship.
In the INM’s view, restoring youth participation in democratic life should be a national priority.