Lightweights? Political Participation Beyond the Ballot Box

March 1, 2013
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Volunteering and donating to charitable causes are considered important parts of being Canadian, rightfully celebrated and encouraged as a means to improve this country. However, when it comes to strengthening our country through political life, many Canadians are opting out. This stands in stark contrast to the power of politics: after all, it is through politics that we allocate vast amounts of public dollars, and ultimately, how Canadians decide to live together. To take one high-profile example, 50 years ago nearly 80% of Canadians voted in federal elections. Today voter turnout is at about 60%, and provincial and municipal turnouts are often far lower. The most dramatic declines have occurred within the last 25 years. While turnout is well researched, what’s less regularly examined is how Canadians participate in politics beyond the ballot box, and what this might signal about the vitality of political life in Canada. This past year, Samara commissioned public opinion research that measured different ways Canadians participate politically between elections. Samara identified 20 activities across five broad categories of engagement where Canadians are “being political”: Online Discussion, Off-line Discussion, Activism, Civic Engagement and Formal Engagement (see page 3 for a complete list of activities). The results show that while Canadians give time and money to making communities better places to live, we’re far less likely to apply those same energies to politics. Consider this:

  • While 55% of us volunteer our time, only 10% volunteer in an election.
  • While 84%1 donate money to a charity or nonprofit, only 10% donate to political candidates or parties.
  • While 58% are active in a group or association, only 10% are members of political parties.

In selecting which political activities to include, Samara chose actions that connect citizens with each other or allow them to express an opinion in public, rather than more solitary activities, such as following political news. Some activities require very little time or energy, such as tweeting a political story or discussing politics. Others, like volunteering in a community organization, are often considered civic activities rather than political ones, but they are an important part of Canadians’ political life, allowing citizens to express concerns about policy as part of a group, and deserve attention.


As this report outlines, Canadians, on average, are involved in only five out of the possible 20 activities, and a full 10% of us don’t do even one political activity. Canadians reported the lowest overall activity in the Formal Engagement category, which measures their direct interaction with formal politics. On the other hand, about half of us participate in activities such as petitioning, boycotting and joining a group. This report also examines the 18–34 age group and finds that this younger cohort is participating at higher levels than the older cohort in nearly every area, except when it comes to formal politics.Finally, this report also reveals that those who do participate in formal politics are the real heavy lifters when it comes to our political life. They report completing at least half the activities, and their engagement goes well beyond partisan interests, crossing all categories. Overall, these data underscore what Canadians suspect implicitly, and what falling voter turnout has signalled for decades: if a healthy democracy requires active participation, then Canada is on pretty shaky ground. This is most pronounced when it comes to formal politics, which appears to have lost—or failed to build—cachet with most Canadians, and most critically our young people.

If a healthy democracy requires active participation, then Canada is on pretty shaky ground.

“Lightweights?: Political Participation Beyond the Ballot Box” is Samara’s effort to capture a snapshot of political activity levels in Canada, provoke a discussion on engagement and gather suggestions on how to draw attention to the issues of lagging political participation that have languished unchallenged for far too long.

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