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

Updated: 20 January 2011

1. Political engagement and "Active Citizenship"

Enrolment and voting are behaviours which are normally associated with "active citizenship", particularly if they are voluntary and not compulsory. Furthermore, in most discussions of citizenship voting is seen as a minimum requirement in fulfilling one's responsibilities as a citizen, but it is not seen as the only activity which qualifies as citizenship behaviour (Saha, 2000a).

But can one be an active citizen without voting?

Most researchers recognise that there are many political behaviours that can be included in the notion of "active citizenship" which are more community-oriented and policy-oriented, such as volunteer work and other projects designed to eliminate community problems. For example, in her survey of 18–34 year-old Australians, Vromen (2003a) adopted a broad conceptualisation of political behaviour that included 19 "participatory acts" which, by means of principle components analysis, were reduced to four scales: "individualistic", "party", "communitarian" and "activist". Vromen found that her young Australians were more politically active than many people recognise (almost all had participated in at least one activity) and that: 1) women were more active in communitarian and activist activities, 2) those with more education were more active overall, and 3) individualised activities were more numerous than collective activities. Voting, however, was not one of the 19 activities, and while these findings are important in their own right, we still need to understand the link between forms of political activism and voting.

Westheimer and Kahn (2004) argued that there are three types of citizen and labeled them as: 1) Personally responsible citizen (obey laws, contributes to good causes, recycles, gives blood, etc; 2) The Participatory citizen (volunteers for community work, joins community or social groups, helps organise programs to help others etc; and 3) The Justice-oriented citizen (critically assesses the causes of social problems, and works actively to alleviate them). After their study of two civics education school projects, they concluded that these three types of citizenship behaviour may be discreet and that they can be taught separately in civics and citizenship classes in schools. Once again, Westheimer and Kahne included behaviours such as political interest, and intention to volunteer; they did not include the intention to vote or voting.

Some researchers argue that "active citizenship" behaviours are linked and overlap (Youniss & Yates, 1999), and further, that they are related to voting. For example, Verba and his colleagues (Verba, Schlozman, & Brady, 1995) found in their study of American adults that voting and community activity tended to go together. In addition, they found that many adult "active citizens" had already been active while still in school. But the question of voting and citizenship takes on a different perspective in the Australian context given that voting is legally required and therefore compulsory for citizens (Hallett, 1999). In other words, do people vote merely to obey the law, or do they vote because they want to be participative citizens?

The many behaviours included in the above research, whether at the individual or community level, are usually regarded as forms of political engagement and also include activities such as signing petitions, writing letters and even participating in forms of public display of consent or dissent with government policies or actions. These latter activities occur in the form of rallies or demonstrations connected with various social movements, and have sometimes been referred to as the "politics of the future" (Jennett & Stewart, 1989) or "new politics" (Pakulski, 1991).

In this report we focus on the link between various forms of political activity reported by Australian youth, and their intention to vote. In addressing this issue, we highlight some of our findings from the 2004 national survey of 4855 senior secondary school students, from 153 schools, drawn randomly from an inclusive national list. The response rate of targeted schools was 74%. We also utilise the group interview data collected from sixteen electoral divisions. (See Print, Saha and Edwards, 2004 for a more detailed description of the YES project.) We focus specifically on the behaviours which we define as indicating political engagement among Australian youth, and we examine how these behaviours are related to their voting intentions.

As voting is compulsory in Australia for federal and state elections, there are two items in the YES questionnaire which measure voting intention. The first simply asks the student if he or she will vote when they reach 18 years of age. The second asks whether they would vote in a Federal election if they did not have to. In our first YES report, we pointed out that while 87% of the students said they would vote in a Federal election, only 50% said they would still vote if it were not compulsory. (Print, Saha, & Edwards, 2004)

The difference between the responses to the two questions is clearly seen in Chart 1 and Chart 2 below. The survey question which is displayed in Chart 1 is:

Do you intend to vote in Federal elections after you reach 18? (The response categories were: "Yes, definitely", "Yes, probably", "Probably not", "Definitely not")

In Chart 1, the two "Yes" and two "No" responses are combined.

Students who say they will vote in a federal election when they turn 18. Yes 87% , No 13% Students who will vote in a Federal Election at 18, Even not compulsory. Yes 49.8% , No 50.2%

The question in the survey represented in Chart 2 was as follows:

Would you vote in a Federal election if you did not have to? (The response categories were "Yes" or "No")

We think that this second question about the intention to vote, even if it were not compulsory, is a better measure of the level of commitment to carry out citizenship responsibilities. It means that the students say they will vote, not because they feel they will have to, but because they want to.

It is the responses to this second question that we use to relate political engagement activities to voting intentions throughout the remainder of this report.