Youth Electoral Study (YES) - Report 5: Youth, schools and learning about politics

Updated: 17 July 2012

2. Methodology

The study uses a mixed-method methodological approach to collect both in-depth qualitative and quantitative data. A review of literature on youth participation in democracy and voting has been conducted. Extensive international interest, particularly in Europe, Britain and the United States is evident in addressing the issue of youth disengagement. In countries where voting is not compulsory, youth voting rates are invariably the lowest of any age group (Wattenberg 2008). Most western democracies are aware of the implications should the current youth disengagement continue through to later years, and are actively seeking ways to engage their youth in voting.

2.1 Case studies

A key source of data are the 16 electoral divisions (from 150 nationally) selected as case study sites. Our cases covered the main categories of electoral divisions – inner city, mid city-suburban, outer suburban, rural city, rural town and remote. Over a four-year period data were collected through in-depth group interviews with youth aged 17–25 in school and non-school sites to identify electoral behaviour and evaluate the effectiveness of various pro-registration and voting interventions. Data collection was carried out by the principal researchers together with a Senior Research Associate and casual research assistants, and was supported by the Divisional Returning Officers (DROs) of the 16 designated electoral divisions.

Most data in the 16 case studies were collected through group and individual interviews with students from a range of schools within each of the divisions. These students represent a critical age in terms of enrolment as Australians can enroll at age seventeen years. Most group data were obtained from interviews with groups of Year 7–10 students in four schools in each division, usually two government secondary schools, an independent and a catholic school. In 2003 we interviewed students in Year 11 (aged 15–17) and then followed up the same students in 2004 (then aged 16–18). We contacted many of these students in 2005 and 2006 to determine changes in behaviour and attitudes.

2.2 National school survey

The second data-gathering strategy consists of two national cross sectional surveys of Year 12 senior secondary schools, the first in 2004 to investigate student attitudes towards enrolment and voting and to identify the impact of civics and citizenship programs in schools. A second survey will be held in 2009 which will pursue in greater depth selected findings from the 2004 survey.

From a national data-base, a stratified random sample of secondary schools was drawn, controlled for state and type of school. A total of 208 schools were drawn, and invitations were sent to participate in the survey. Following this initial contact, each school was contacted by phone and negotiations were initiated about participation in the survey. In the end, over 155 schools participated, giving a response rate of 78.6 per cent. An average of 31 students from each school participated, providing a national sample of 4923 senior secondary students.

In addition to the main questionnaire, each school received a questionnaire which sought information on type of school, enrolments, and the teaching program related to civics or citizenship education. Finally, each teacher whose class was surveyed was asked to complete a form which provided information of the conditions under which the student questionnaire was completed.

2.3 What Do We Mean by "Commitment to Vote"?

In the national survey students were asked two specific questions about voting. The first was: "Do you intend to vote in Federal elections after you reach 18?" As we would expect, given compulsory voting, the vast majority, or 87%, said they would "Definitely" or "Probably" vote. (See Yes Report 1 for more details.) These findings are a little higher than the official Australian Electoral Commission data which indicate that about 85% of the youth age cohort do vote. We call this variable, Intention to Vote.

The second question about voting was: "Would you vote in a Federal election if you did not have to?" The response to this question was simply "Yes" or "No". In contrast to the responses to the previous question, only about 50% said they would. We call this variable, Would Vote Even if not Compulsory.

We then combined these two questions to form a third voting variable, which is sometimes used in this analysis. There are five categories in this third variable: 1) definitely will vote, 2) probably will vote, 3) Maybe will vote, 4) probably will not vote, and 5) definitely will not vote. Each category is given a value ranging from 6 to 2, with 6 being allocated to "definitely will vote", and definitely will not vote a value of 2.1 We call this variable Commitment to Vote.

Therefore we have three variables which measure voting intention:

  1. Intention to Vote (when compulsory)
  2. Would Vote Even if not Compulsory
  3. Commitment to Vote (taking both #1 and #2 into account)

The difference between these variables will be made clear in the context in which a form of voting intention is analysed.

  1. This variable is a combination of two questions in the questionnaire, namely whether the student intended to vote when 18 years of age, and whether the student intended to vote even if voting were non-compulsory. Thus, by combining these two variables, we have a variable which takes into account both the compulsory nature of voting in Australia and the hypothetical intention to vote if not compulsory. This gives us a measure of the student's "commitment to voting", even if it were not compulsory.