The Impact of Civic Education on Voter Turnout

Key Points

  • Studies in Canada, the United States and Australia demonstrate that civic education has a positive impact on key factors associated with voter turnout, such as political knowledge, interest, attitudes, civic participation and intent to vote.
  • Methods and approaches to teaching civic education matter. In Canada, research has shown that community service, integrated into civic education courses, can have a greater impact on future political participation than a one-sided classroom approach. Civic education should also engage the ideas students have of politics when they first enter the classroom.
  • International studies underscore the importance of hands-on learning through government simulations and other activities, including field trips and classroom visits by politicians.

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Why Civics?

Formal civic education in the classroom is the primary means by which young people acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to participate in their democracies in an informed and engaged fashion. The principle objective of civic education is to teach civic literacy, which can be defined as a knowledge and understanding of the basic principles of government. It also aims to impart a basic familiarity with prevailing social values and norms as well as an understanding of fundamental rights and responsibilities (Print et al. 2009). Studies have shown that an individual's likelihood of voting increases with higher levels of knowledge and interest in politics. In addition to enhancing these variables, civic education can foster values and attitudes that encourage political participation while increasing the motivation to vote.

Although a variety of stakeholders must address declining youth voter turnout using a range of methods and approaches, research demonstrates that civic education remains an important policy option. This digest summarizes some of the main findings from the literature on the impact of formal civic education in Canada and other established democracies.

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The ability of researchers to assess the impact of civic education on voter turnout is challenged on a number of fronts. Methodologically, because students who take civic education are typically below voting age, studies based on survey questionnaires must use intention to vote as a proxy for actual electoral participation. Few countries or jurisdictions that have implemented mandatory civic education have examined its impact over time through comprehensive studies that control for other factors. No study has undertaken a cross-national analysis to compare the impact of specific programs and approaches to civic education.

In the absence of large-scale studies controlling for other factors, the temptation is to extrapolate the impact of civic education by comparing changes in turnout figures in jurisdictions that have implemented mandatory civics before and after implementation. But there are two main problems associated with this approach. First, civic education may have positive individual effects that do not appear in aggregate studies. Declining youth voter turnout is a complex phenomenon, and other societal factors may depress the motivation to vote. In addition, even if there is an increase in turnout at the aggregate level following the implementation of mandatory civics, the cause may be something else entirely.

Given these challenges, the best we can do to assess the impact of civic education is to review pre- and post-evaluations that assess the impact of specific initiatives and programs on various indicators associated with turnout. With these considerations in mind, several studies shed light on the impact of civic education in Canada, the United States and other advanced democracies.

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Canadian Studies

Researchers investigating the impact of civic education in Canada are confronted with additional challenges. First, because education is a provincial jurisdiction, there is no national curriculum or program to assess. Second, while most provinces offer civic education in some form, they may offer it as part of another course (e.g. Social Studies), and it may not always be a mandatory subject. Finally, civic education varies across the provinces in terms of content, approach, objectives, duration, knowledge base of teachers and the grades in which courses are taught.

However, several national studies do provide a basis from which we can infer the impact of civic education. One of the main objectives of any civic education program is to increase political knowledge and interest (or political attentiveness). At the general level, several studies in Canada have observed a strong correlation between political attentiveness and youth voter turnout (Blais and Loewen 2011; Howe 2010; Elections Canada 2009; Gidengil et al. 2005). Along with declining civic duty, the positive relationship between political attentiveness and voter turnout constitutes one of the most robust findings of the literature. From this, it can be concluded that a successful civic education program that increases political attentiveness is likely to have a positive impact on voter turnout.

On a provincial level, the McGill Youth Survey carried out in Ontario and Quebec found that civic education can increase political knowledge and the intent to participate in elections (Claes and Hooghe 2009).Footnote 1 Specifically, the study found that civic education influences political knowledge both directly and indirectly by having a positive impact on political interest. The same direct and indirect effects are observed on the intent to vote. Civic courses that integrate into the curriculum hands-on experiences through community service have a stronger impact on intended future political participation than traditional, cognitively oriented civic education. A further study using the same data set demonstrated that both visible minority and non-visible minority students benefit equally from civic education efforts (Claes et al. 2007).

Looking specifically at the province of Ontario, one study drew on Elections Canada turnout-by-age data to argue that the introduction of a compulsory Civics course in 2000 for students in Grade 10 did not have the effect of increasing youth voter turnout in the federal general elections of 2004 and 2006 (Milner 2009). The course has since undergone changes, and a more definitive study would be needed to measure its impact over time while controlling for other factors.

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Methods Matter

Another strand of the literature on civics focuses more specifically on curriculum and methods. This literature is important insofar as it reminds us that the impact of civics cannot be abstracted from the content of curricula and the methods used to inculcate notions of citizenship.

Chareka and Sears (2006) examined conceptions of voting among a small group of young people (aged 14–25) in Atlantic Canada and did not find them lacking either basic information about the mechanics of voting or a more complex understanding of the place of voting in democratic governance. In spite of this, most said they did not vote or did not intend to vote as a result of various negative views toward politics. To be effective, Sears (2009) argues, civic education must build on the ideas that students have of politics when entering the classroom (the so-called cognitive framework), engaging them with alternative perspectives. This means taking prior knowledge into account, teaching for understanding rather than transmitting facts and tailoring curricula to specific contexts.

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Grounds for Optimism in the United States

Based on the early work of Langston and Jennings (1968), the scholarly consensus in the United States long held that civic education was ineffective. In the late 1990s, a new wave of scholarship pioneered by Niemi and Junn (1998) began reassessing the impact of civic education on fostering political knowledge and engagement, and it revealed more positive results. Currently, all 50 states require that high schools teach civics or the equivalent (Milner 2010).

Recent research by Bachner (2011), based on two National Education Longitudinal Studies (NELS), shows that students who complete a year of coursework in American Government/Civics are 3 to 6 percentage points more likely to vote in an election following high school than those without exposure to civic education. Among students who report not discussing politics with their parents, completing additional coursework is associated with an increase of 7 to 11 percentage points in the probability of voting.Footnote 2

One panel study on the impact of Kids Voting USA – a not-for-profit organization that provides instructional civic education materials to K–12 teachers in the context of electionsFootnote 3 – found that participation in the program increased several variables associated with voting, such as attention to news, political discussion with family and friends, testing opinions in conversation and support for unconventional activism (McDevitt and Kiousis 2006).Footnote 4 Thus, this study underscores the importance of hands-on (or experiential) civic education in reinforcing factors associated with voting among youth.

A study on the impact of a supplementary civic education program in Philadelphia, the Student Voices curriculum, revealed similarly beneficial outcomes for factors associated with voting (Pasek et al. 2008). While all students in Philadelphia must take two semesters of civic education, Student Voices was implemented in 26 public high schools in 2002–2003. The results of the study indicated that students who experienced two semesters of the program reported greater self-efficacy for political participation and that this effect carried over to increased political attentiveness as well as to knowledge of candidates' positions. However, neither knowledge nor efficacy had direct effects on voting once attentiveness was controlled for.Footnote 5 Still, the results suggest that a supplementary civic education program such as Student Voices can increase subsequent participation in politics by building long-term gains in political self-efficacy and skills in using the news media to follow government and political affairs.

Another study, on the impact of a civics program in Los Angeles, developed by the Constitutional Rights Foundation, a non-profit community-based organization, also found that methods matter (Kahne et al. 2006). The program, CityWorks, incorporated several innovative experiential activities, including multiple simulations of processes related to local government in the context of a fictional city, meetings with various community leaders and politicians, and a service-learning activity requiring research and action on a local issue of the students' choice. The study found that students who participated in the program as part of a course on American government scored higher on civic and political engagement indicators than those who did not.Footnote 6

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In Search of International Best Practices

Two major cross-national studies on civic education have been conducted, though neither has measured the impact of civics on voter turnout specifically. The first – the International Civic and Citizenship Education Study (ICCS) – was carried out by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement in 1999. A follow-up study was undertaken 10 years later, in 2009.

The 1999 study was based on surveys of 140,000 students in 28 countries. Its main objective was to strengthen the empirical foundations of civic education by providing information about the civic knowledge, attitudes and actions of 14-year-olds and upper secondary school students. Most important, the study revealed that two variables associated with civic education outcomes – civic knowledge and political interest – were strong predictors of expected electoral participation (Torney-Purta et al. 2001).

The 2009 ICCS study was conducted in 38 countries and involved more than 140,000 students and 62,000 teachers. Of the participating countries, 21 included a specific subject concerned with civic and citizenship education in their curriculum, and it was compulsory for completing a general education. Although the full results of the study have yet to be released, preliminary results indicate that civic knowledge in 7 of the 15 countries with mandatory civic education that had responded to civic knowledge questions in 1999 had significantly declined (Schulz et al. 2010). The authors note that it is not yet possible to offer an explanation for this finding, but they remind us that civic knowledge is just one aspect of civic and citizenship education.

The second major cross-national study on civic education, the Civic Education Study (CIVICED), is currently being carried out under the auspices of International IDEA and l'Université de Montréal. The purpose of the study, which draws upon questionnaires completed by civic education specialists in over 35 countries and will come to completion in 2012, is to compile a database to serve as a resource for researchers, policy makers, educators and academics around the world.Footnote 7 The study highlights, among other issues, the importance of teacher training, which is currently only provided in just over one third of the countries for which data are available.

Among important exceptions are the Scandinavian countries (Milner et al. 2009), which are notable for other best practices in civic education as well. Field trips and simulations, for example, are key features of the civic education curricula of Sweden and Norway. In Norway, students study political parties and their programs, visit politicians, role-play, present party platforms in class and participate in parliamentary committee simulations. In Sweden, classroom time is supplemented by experiential simulations such as Minister for a Day as well as visits from and to city councils. Although it is difficult to assess the impact of such initiatives, Milner (2010; 2002) argues that they are important contributing factors to higher levels of civic literacy in Scandinavia, which, in turn, are associated with higher turnout.Footnote 8

Australia is another jurisdiction where the impact of civic education was found to be positive. The Youth Electoral Study indicated an important difference in voting intention between those who had taken a course about government (62.5%) and those who had not (52%) (Print 2009).Footnote 9 Australia is also notable for the innovative role that the Australian Electoral Commission has played in supporting civic education. Among other things, the Commission manages a National Electoral Education Centre in Canberra. A dedicated staff person is also available for teacher training, and three permanent staff members (including district returning officers) are available to provide public education upon request in schools in each of the country's 150 constituencies (Howe 2010).

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Which Way Forward?

Despite the lack of systematic evaluation of the impact of civic education on voter turnout in Canada and other established democracies, the available research suggests that civic education in the classroom does have a positive impact on variables associated with turnout. In addition to increasing political knowledge and interest, civic education can positively affect attitudes and values associated with voting as well the intent to vote. Research also tells us much about how we conduct civic education and the methods and approaches that are most likely to work. These include emphasizing experiential learning, taking prior knowledge into consideration, training educators, conducting field trips and bringing politicians into the classroom. Although there are different ways to encourage youth to vote, civic education – with the right approach – remains an essential policy option for fostering democratic participation and preparing young people to assume their roles as citizens.

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Bachner, Jennifer. "From Classroom to Voting Booth: The Effect of Civic Education on Turnout." Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Southern Political Science Association, New Orleans, LA, 2011.

Blais, André, and Peter Loewen. Youth Electoral Engagement in Canada . Elections Canada Working Paper Series, 2011.

Chareka, Ottilia, and Alan Sears. "Civic Duty: Young People's Conceptions of Voting as a Means of Political Participation." Canadian Journal of Education 29, 2 (2006): 521–40.

Claes, Ellen, and Marc Hooghe. "Citizenship Education and Political Interest: Is there a Connection?" Civic Education and Youth Political Participation. Edited by Murray Print and Henry Milner. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 2009, 85–99.

Claes, Ellen, Dietlind Stolle, and Marc Hooghe. "Socializing New Citizens." Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Teaching and Learning Conference of the American Political Science Association, Charlotte, NC, February 2007.

Gidengil, Elisabeth, et al. "Missing the Message: Young Adults and the Election Issues." Electoral Insight 7, 1 (2005): 6–11.

Howe, Paul. Citizens Adrift: The Democratic Disengagement of Young Canadians. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010.

Kahne, Joseph, Bernadette Chi, and Ellen Middaugh. "Building Social Capital for Civic and Political Engagement." Canadian Journal of Education 29, 2 (2006): 387–409.

Langston, Kenneth P., and M. Kent Jennings. "Political Socialization and the High School Civic Curriculum in the United States." American Political Science Review 62 (1968): 862–67.

McDevitt, Michael, and Spiro Kiousis. "Experiments in Political Socialization: Kids Voting USA as a Model for Civic Education Reform." Circle Working Paper 49, August 2006.

Milner, Henry. Civic Literacy: How Informed Citizens Make Democracy Work. Hanover: University Press of New England, 2002.

–––. "Civics, Ontario Style: Why Did Ontario's Civic Education Program Fail to Reduce the Democratic Deficit?" Inroads 25 (2009): 106–13.

–––. The Internet Generation. Medford: Tufts University Press, 2010.

Milner, Henry, Chi Nguyen, and Frances Boylston. "A World Pattern for Civic Education: From the IEA Civic Education Study to the IDEA CIVICED Database Project." Civic Education and Youth Political Participation. Edited by Murray Print and Henry Milner. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 2009, 103–21.

Niemi, Richard G., and Jane Junn. Civic Education. What Makes Students Learn. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998.

Pasek, Josh, et al. "Schools as Incubators of Democratic Participation: Building Long-Term Political Efficacy with Civic Education." Applied Developmental Science 12, 1 (2008): 26–37.

Print, Murray, Henry Milner, and Chi Nguyen. Introduction to Civic Education and Youth Political Participation. Edited by Murray Print and Henry Milner. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 2009.

Schulz, Wolfram, et al. Initial Findings from the IEA International Civic and Citizenship Education Study. Amsterdam: International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, 2010.

Sears, Alan. "Children's Understandings of Democratic Participation: Lessons for Civic Education." Civic Education and Youth Political Participation. Edited by Murray Print and Henry Milner. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 2009, 143–58.

The Strategic Counsel. Survey of electors following the 40th General Election: A Report to Elections Canada. March 2009.

Torney-Purta, Judith, et al. Citizenship and Education in Twenty-eight Countries: Civic Knowledge and Engagement at Age Fourteen. Amsterdam: IEA, 2001.

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Footnote 1 The survey was conducted in 2005–2006 and included 3,334 participants 16 and 17 years of age in 81 schools in seven matched cities in Quebec and Ontario.

Footnote 2 Bachner's analysis is based on two waves of the NELS: a baseline survey administered in 1988 to a nationally representative sample of eighth-graders from 1,052 public and private schools, with subsequent surveys administered in the spring of 1990, 1992, 1994 and 2000 to a random subset of the original sample, and a second baseline survey administered in 2002 to a nationally representative sample of high school sophomores, with follow-up surveys in 2004 and 2006.

Footnote 3 Kids Voting USA is similar to Student Vote in Canada, which hosts parallel elections for students under the voting age; the elections coincide with official election periods.

Footnote 4 The study included a control group and interviews with student-parent pairs in 2002, 2003 and 2004 (a total of 187 student-parent pairs completed the final wave of interviews).

Footnote 5 Following the 2004 presidential election, researchers re-contacted students who had participated in the program for one or two semesters (n=360) and students who had been in control Civics classes (n=186).

Footnote 6 The study was based on a quasi-experimental design using both pre- and post-surveys. A total of 231 students from five high schools participated in the study, including 154 students who participated in CityWorks.

Footnote 7 Although not all of the country information has been compiled, a considerable amount of data is currently available on the Web site at

Footnote 8 Two other countries that have mandatory civics are France and England. Neither, however, has conducted an evaluation of the impact of its program on the values, attitudes and intent to vote among youth.

Footnote 9 The sample size for this study was 4,636. The study asked whether students would vote in a federal election once eligible even if they did not have to. (Voting is mandatory in Australia.)

Link to Elections Canada