This is my draft application to write a thesis for my Masters in Professional Communications that I am taking at Royal Roads University. Would appreciate any comments / edits / feedback!
Like many Canadians,
I am very concerned about the decline in voting among Canadian youth. Analyzing
available data, Blais and Loewen (2009) estimate that voter turnout among
Canadians under the age of 30 has gone from 69% in 1965 to 37% in 2006 – a drop
of 32%. This is a significant problem not only because we are losing the voice
of youth in government, but also because declines in youth voter participation could
be a significant factor in “further aggregate voter turnout in coming years”
(Howe, 2007, p14). If overall
voter turnout keeps on declining, how legitimate can future governments claim
of the recent literature regarding youth voter turnout in Canada focuses
generational reasons (Turcotte, 2007; Blais and Lowen, 2009) and on outreach
activities (Howe, 2007; O’Neill, 2007). We know
something about why youth don’t vote, we know a little about effective
activities to encourage them to vote, now we should now a bit about what to
on these studies and others, I hope to contribute to better understanding on
effective voter outreach messages. Howe (2007) touches on message themes used
in various youth voter outreach campaigns, but I could not find a study that gave
some sense of relative effectiveness of these messages in Canada.
Framing my research
further, I want to argue that we should not use all effective messages.
Electoral promotion activities could attempt to make people angry or to terrify
people. I am interested in
outreach messages that help create positive attitudes and build trust. Better
understanding communication for trust
will be a key element of this
research. To explore the concept of trust, I will draw upon deliberative
democracy theories and methodologies. I will further elaborate on these in the
research methods section.
objective is to study the effectiveness of different youth voter outreach
messages in building trust in habitual non voting Canadian youth and
encouraging them to become habitual voters for a lifetime. As outlined by Howe
(2007), there is a difference between habitual youth non-voters and
intermittent youth non voters. Howe (2007) describes intermittent youth non-voters
as people who already have motivation to vote and explains that this group
would generally benefit from policies that make voting easier. I do not propose to research voters in
this group. I would like to focus entirely on youth who don’t vote at all. For this group, making voting easier
doesn’t really help. O’Neill (2007) writes that, in order for this group to
start voting in any number, it is important to instill “a desire and motivation
to participate in electoral politics.” Turcotte (2007) argues that youth need
to see their own values reflected in the electoral system. Both of these
recommendations, as examples, benefit from the careful crafting of messages.
I propose to use two foundational communication
theories to help frame this research – the elaboration likelihood model (Petty
and Cacioppo, 1985) and social judgment theory (Sherif, Sherif, Nebergall
1965). These theories will be used to help shape the selection and the analysis
of the youth voter outreach messages that will be examined for their
effectiveness. The elaboration likelihood model (ELM) posits that people
process information through two different routes – a central route and a
peripheral route. At times, these routes will be used in combination. When
using the central route, one thinks more deeply about a message, analyzing the
content and comparing it against already held opinions and attitudes. If one
changes an attitude or opinion through central route processing, ELM suggests
this change will be a more enduring change. In contrast, when using the
peripheral route, one does not really think too deeply or carefully analyze the
message. Attitude change here might arise from “cues” such as number of times
the messages is seen/heard/read. When attitude change arises through
information processing through the peripheral route, this change is likely to
be more easily reversed or further changed. ELM suggests that people will make
greater use of the central route if they feel more motivated and more able to
invest themselves in an issue.
initial thinking on using ELM to help select youth voter outreach messages for
evaluation revolves around combining the peripheral and central routes or, at
the very least, figuring how to motivate habitual non voting youth to process
the messages through the central route. Perhaps, the messages would work on two
levels – a peripheral level to get people’s attention and a central route to
encourage them to think more deeply.
finding in the literature on youth electoral engagement in Canada is that youth,
taken as a group, are losing interest in traditional political institutions (O’Neill,
2007; Turcotte, 2007; Blais and Loewen, 2009). It is important to note that this does not mean youth who do
not vote are cynical about politics. O’Neill (2007) outlines numerous studies
that indicate a lower level of
political cynicism among Canadian youth than exists among older citizens. It is
almost as if young Canadians, especially those who habitually don’t vote,
possess no strong feelings on politics either way. ELM suggests that this may
be a benefit to framing messages because when people hold strong views, it is
harder for them to change their minds.
Habitual non-voting youth may have
no strong opinions on politics but this does not mean they do not have strong
opinions in reaction to different messages. Social judgment theory (SJT) is a communications
theory that helps us understand that previous attitudes often shape the
reaction to new messages. SJT suggests the people have “latitudes” of
acceptance, rejection, and noncommittal based on what they already believe.
This is a helpful lens through which to analyze attitudes and to analyze the
effectiveness of messages (Robinson et al, 2008; Smith et al, 2006).
am keen that this study be of use to agencies like Elections Canada and to
other organizations that promote voting to youth. In this way, I firmly situate
this thesis proposal within the applied research paradigm. I am also attracted
to the applied paradigm’s guidance to undertake research methods that are
collaborative and empowering.
the best research method for this study has been the most challenging part of
researching this proposal, but here is my current thinking. I propose to select
a variety of voter outreach messages – in collaboration with a small group of
advisors (many of whom will be youth). The content of these messages will be
categorized by theme. Some messages, for example, might appeal to civic
responsibility and others might appeal to desires for increased power. The
selection of messages themes will be informed by studies that touch on themes
used in various youth voter outreach messages around that world (Howe, 2007) as
well as studies that touch on youth and societal values, attitudes, and
feelings (O’Neill, 2007; Turcotte, 2007; Blais and Loewen, 2009; Southwell,
2008; Harder and Krosnick, 2008).
selection, I would like to invite a group of habitual non voting youth to
attend a deliberative forum. At
the beginning of the forum, I would like to survey the participants on the effectiveness of the selected
messages. The survey would ask attendees to rate the messages on a scale. The
ends of the scale might be something like “very effective” and “not effective
all”. The forum, then, would be an opportunity to use the best practices of
deliberative democracy to further explore the messages and their effectiveness
– specifically focusing on the question of which messages more effectively
build trust. There are many different methodologies that could be used. The
Coordinated Management of Meaning (Pearce, 2005)is a strong candidate with
strong routes in communication theory. I have recently completed a
certification in dialogue, deliberation, and public engagement and have some
understanding of how to mix and match deliberative methods in real life
situations. A strong feature of deliberative forums is that the participants
are very much in control of the flow and unfolding of the agenda. A
deliberative forum needs to provide a welcoming, respectful, and safe
environment for all participants. Given these design features, note taking and
recording of the forum proceedings needs to be sensitive first and
comprehensive, a close second.
It is indeed very important that ethical
considerations be at the forefront of this research. Working with young adults,
some who may feel marginalized by society, requires sensitivity to such issues
as power differential, free and informed consent, and privacy and
confidentiality. I commit myself
to do everything in my power to adhere to the 8 guiding principles of ethical
research at Royal Roads.
my network of colleagues across Canada, it would be my hope to organize
deliberative forums across the country. My minimum would be two forums – one in
Kamloops BC and one somewhere in Ontario. My hope is that I could add forums in
the Maritimes, the Prairies, and Quebec – for a total of 5. I would restrict
the attendees in each forum to 20. I am willing to travel to these locations
and/or arrange with colleagues on the ground to help facilitate the forums and
administrate the surveys.
would be undertaken in two ways. First, the responses for the surveys would be
tabulated to assess whether reactions generally fell in SJT’s latitude of
acceptance, latitude of non-commitment, and level of rejection. Second, common
and/or important themes would be drawn from the recordings and notes from the
deliberative forums. These themes
would also be assessed to see where they may fit in SJT’s latitudes.
The recommendation sections of my
thesis would report back on what themes / messages seemed most promising in
building trust with habitual non voting youth and helped encourage them to
become voters for life.
would like to quickly outline some further relevant personal experience and
qualifications. I am past president of Fair Voting BC and a national director
of the Canadian Community of Dialogue and Deliberation. I have extensive
connections in the voting outreach and deliberative democracy movement in
Canada. As a former city councilor, a candidate in two municipal elections and
one federal election, I have been very active in promoting more participation,
especially among youth, in our political system.
Blais, A, & Loewen
P.J. (2009). Youth electoral engagement
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Harder, J. & Krosnick, J. A. (2008) Why
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