Youth Electoral Study (YES) - Report 2: Youth, Political Engagement and Voting

Updated: 20 January 2011

4. Are Students Who Are Politically Engaged More Likely to Vote?

At the outset of this report, we said that ultimately we want to know whether forms of political engagement among youth are likely to be related their propensity to vote. The details about the extent of political engagement with respect to a number of behaviours were given in Figures 1 through 5, and Exhibits 1 through 3. We now consider the link between political activity and voting intentions.

1) Political Activism and Intention to Vote

In order to examine this relationship further we constructed cross-tabulations and compared those who engaged or did not engage in a particular activity with whether they would vote in a Federal election if they did not have to.

As we noted in Section 2.1, the nine political activities in our survey question fall into two groups, namely the "normative" activities (those which are within the acceptable norms of society), and the "non-normative" (those activities which are not always considered as within the norms of acceptable behaviour). This distinction is kept in reporting the relationship between political activities and the intention to vote, keeping in mind that the voting question is within the context of non-compulsory.

The results for the relationship between "normative" activities and the intention to vote are given in Figure 6.

Percent who would vote if they have and hane not participated in normative polictical activity

In Figure 6, the top bar indicates the per cent who would vote for those who have experienced the specified political activity, while the lower bar indicates the per cent who would vote for those who have not experienced the specified political activity.

For example, for those who have signed a petition, 54.7% say they would vote, while for those who have not signed a petition, only 43.4% say they would vote.

When we examine the six political activities in Figure 6, we see that for every activity, those who have engaged in that activity are more likely to say they would vote than those who have not engaged in the activity.

Clearly, there is a link between the experience of "normative" (acceptable) political activities and the intention to vote. Students who feel strongly enough to openly display their views through political action, are also students who feel strongly about voting.

But does the relationship also occur for those political behaviours which often are not seen as acceptable? The comparable data for the non-normative (more violent) activities are given in Figure 7.

percent who would vote if they have or have not participated in non-normative political activity

Unlike the previous figure, here we find a much different pattern. Those students who say they have experienced one of the three activities are less likely to say they would vote in a Federal election if they did not have to. For example, of the students who say they have participated in violent forms of protest to the extent of damaging things, 37.4% say they would vote, but for those who have not engaged in this behaviour 50.6% say they would vote.

In other words, these forms of activism seem to have a negative relationship with the intention to vote.

How can we interpret this pattern? First, we must keep in mind that far fewer students engage in the non-normative form of behaviour than the normative. (See Figures 1 and 3.) Second, previous research found that the students who engaged in non-normative forms of political activity were more disaffected and alienated from school and society (Saha, 2000). Therefore rather than complement voting intentions, participation in the more extreme non-acceptable forms of political behaviour actually seems somewhat incompatible with voting intentions.

At this point, a number of cautions should be kept in mind. First, these figures only consider the two variables in question; they are based on cross-tabulations. More detailed analyses are needed to determine whether or not these relationships are due to other factors. Second, at this point we are not suggesting a causal link between the two variables, that is, that participation in protests causes a person to have a positive intention toward voting. We only want to make the point that the two variables are correlated.

Key Points:

  1. The experience of normative forms of activism has a positive relationship with the intention to vote.
  2. The experience of non-normative forms of activism has a negative relationship with the intention to vote.

2) Support for Social Movements and the Intention to Vote

Now let us turn our intention to participation in rallies in support of specific social movements and its link with voting.

Social movements provide another avenue for people to become politically engaged with politics. This is true whether the nature of the movement is consistent with or adverse to the policies of the government in office. As we have seen, the students in our survey do discriminate between different social movements, but some movements such as the peace and environment movements do enjoy very strong student support. However, does social movement support relate to other political actions, in particular that of voting?

In Figure 8 we display the relationship between social movement support and the

intention to vote. In this figure we give the per cent of students who would join the social movement (top bar) or would not join (the bottom bar) the social movement, and who say they would vote, even if voting were non-compulsory.

percent who would vote enev if Non-compulsory for thos who would and would not join protest

There are three main observations that can be made from Figure 8. First, for all but one of the eight social movements listed, the disposition to join a rally or protest in support of the specified movement is related to a higher intention to vote. For example, of those students who say they would join a protest to support more freedoms for asylum seekers or migrants, 62.9% say they would vote, while only 44.8% of those who would not join a protest would vote. This pattern is the same for seven of the eight movements, the exception being for those who would join a rally or protest for the anti-abortion movement. Here the figures are reversed (46.5% compared to 50.5%), but the difference is very small.

A second observation is that the proportion that would join a movement and also would vote varies considerably between movements. For example, for those who would join a rally in support of asylum seekers and migrants, 62.9% say they would vote. This compares to 46.9% of those who would join a rally in support of an anti-abortion campaign.

The third observation concerns the unique pattern for those who join a rally to support an anti-abortion campaign. Here one can only speculate, but one reason might relate to the underlying motives for supporting a social movement. It could be that the first seven movements are motivated by civic motives while the eighth is motivated by moral or religious motives. A more detailed analysis will be need to be done to fully explain this unique pattern.

Key Points:

  1. Support for seven of the eight social movements is positively related to intention to vote.
  2. The relationship between supporting a social movement and intending to vote does vary by social movement.
  3. The unique pattern for the anti-abortion movement may be that it is less motivated by civic concern and more by moral or religious concerns.

3) Other Civic/Political Behaviours and the Intention to Vote

The questionnaire contained three additional activities that may be related to political engagement, namely whether the student had been involved with Rotary or other similar civic organizations, whether the student had participated in the Clean-Up Australia campaign, and finally whether or not the student had ever done volunteer work for charity.

There is considerable evidence to suggest that participation in specific civic activities such as these three is strongly related to active citizenship behaviour because of two reasons. The first is that by participating, the students become exposed to the underlying ideologies, values and norms of the sponsoring groups, and second, that by participating the students have a chance to see themselves as actors "for a cause" which is community/collective oriented rather than individual oriented. Both of these are considered to create a stronger civic identity (Youniss et al., 2002).

So what about Australian students? Are those who have participated in the three civic activities more inclined to vote than those who have not? The results for answering this question are found in Figure 9.

percent who would vote if have or have not engaged in other civic activities

The pattern for these three activities is consistent with others we have reported: for each activity, the student who has done them also is more likely to say he or she will vote in Federal elections. For example, 61.9% of the students who have participated in Rotary also say they will vote, compared to 47.4% for those who have not.

The relationship is much the same for those who have or have not participated in the Clean Up Australia campaign or who have worked for charity.

Key Point:

  1. Participation in specific civic activities has a positive relationship with the intention to vote in Federal elections.

4) Student Government in Schools and the Intention to Vote

Previous research has found that participation in student government is positively related to later adult political behaviour. Verba and his colleagues (1995) argue, with de Tocqueville, that institutions in which individuals have an opportunity to practice democratic governance are "schools of democracy". In their study of over 2000 American adults, having participated in student government while in high school was the most important school variable in predicting adult political activity. (Cited in Verba, et al. 1995, p. 425.)

The YES study has collected similar data both in the group interviews in 16 electoral divisions, as well as the national survey. In the survey questionnaire, students were asked whether they had ever run for a school position, for example in the student association, school council, school parliament, or as a school prefect. They were also asked whether they had voted in elections for any of these positions. In the qualitative study we have collected similar information through group interviews, strategic interviews, observation and documentary analysis.

Figure 10 shows the difference between students in the questionnaire study who have and who have not voted in school elections, or who have or have not stood for office in school elections, and whether they would vote when 18 even if voting were not compulsory.

have or have not voted/stood for office in school elections

Clearly the difference between students who have and who have not participated in school elections is significant for both those who have stood for elections, and for those who have voted. Of those who have voted in school elections, 53.2% say they would vote in a Federal Election when 18. Of the students who have not voted in school elections, only 34.7% say they would vote in a Federal election when 18.

The figures for those who have actually stood for election are a little higher, but similar. Of those who have run for school elections, 58% say they would vote, compared to 41.2% of those who have not run for elections.

These figures make it very clear that participating in school elections, either as a candidate, or as a voter, is positively related to the intention to vote when age 18. Verba and his colleagues seem to have been correct when they argued that school elections provide "hands on" experience for general political participation in adult life. The data in Figure 10 suggest that the same applies for voting.

Key Point:

  1. 1. Participation in school elections, either by voting or by standing for office, is positively related with the intention to vote in Federal elections at 18, even if not compulsory.