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Towards More Effective Youth Voter Outreach Messages in Canada: How is Trust Built?

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 to be? 

            Much 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 say.  Building 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.

Research Objective

My research 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.


Theoretical Framework

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.

            My 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.

A recurrent 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).


Research Method

            I 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.

            Understanding 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).

After message 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.

            Through 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.

Data analysis 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.



Personal Qualifications

            I 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 in Canada. Ottawa: Elections Canada

Cacioppo, J.T., Petty, R.E., & Stoltenberg, C.D. (1985). Processes of social influence: the elaboration likelihood model of persuasion. In P.C. Kendall (Ed.), Advances in cognitive-behavioural research and therapy. (Vol. 5, pp. 218-269). New York: Academic Press.

Harder, J. & Krosnick, J. A. (2008) Why do people vote? A psychological analysis of the causes of voter turnout. Journal of Social Issues, 64(3), 525-549.

Howe, P. (2007). The electoral participation of young Canadians. Ottawa: Elections Canada

O’Neill, B. (2007). Indifferent or just different? The political and civic engagement of young people in Canada. Ottawa: Canadian Policy Research Networks

Pearce, W. B. (2005). The Coordinated Management of Meaning. In Gudykunst, W. B.
            (Ed.), Theorizing about Intercultural Communication. (pp. 35-54). Retrieved from

Robinson, J. D., Raup-Krieger, J. L., Burke, G., Weber, V., & Oesterling, B. (2008). The relative influence of  patients’ pre-visit glo            bal satisfaction with medical care on patient’s post-visit satisfaction with physicians’ communication. Communication Research Reports, 25(1), 1-9

Sherif, C. W., Sherif, M. and Nebergall, R. E. (1965). Attitude and attitude change: The social judgment-involvement approach. Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders.

Smith, S. W., Atkin, C. K., Martell, D. , Allen, R., & Hembroff, L. (2006). A social judgment theory approach to conducting formative research in a social norms campaign. Communication Theory 16, 141-152

Southwell, P. L. (2008). The effect on political alienation on voter turnout, 1964-2000. Journal of Political and Military Sociology, 36(1), 131-145.

Turcotte, A. (2007). “What do you mean I can’t have a say?” young Canadians and their government. Ottawa: Canadian Policy Research Networks




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