Why having young kids can make you a bad citizen

Frances McInnis
Shine On

Quick, which is more important: choosing Canada's prime minister or feeding your hungry, screaming toddler?

Between the diaper duty and daycare drop-offs, baby baths and bedtime stories, the parents of young children are less likely to get out and vote, suggests a new survey by Statistics Canada.

Having kids was linked to lower voter participation across all types of families, though it was lowest among single parents. Only 36% of single parents with children under age 5 make it to the polls, compared with 60% of couples with children the same age.

"I know I should have [voted], but I didn't even remember it was election day until late in the day. I just couldn't get it together to get down there," says one rather guilty Toronto mom of a baby and a toddler, who asked to remain nameless "out of shame."

"I wish I had," she says, adding that issues like health care and education have become more important to her since becoming a parent.

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The good news is that once their children are in school, parents seem to return to the polls, says Sharanjit Uppal of Statistics Canada's Labour Statistics Division, who co-authored a report on the survey with Sébastien LaRochelle-Côté. Though the survey didn't follow families' voting habits over time, he says, "We can get a sense that parents of older children are more likely to vote."

Despite having a two-year-old and a four-year-old, Shannon Pickering has never missed an election. "It's always a juggle to meet any commitment with two parents working," says the Vancouver resident. But, she believes it's important to make the time because "voting sets the future."

Statistics Canada added several voting-related questions onto a recent labour force survey, allowing Canadians to see for the first time how family make-up affects voting rates.

"There were certain things that nobody had looked at before," says Uppal. "Most of the studies before were focused on age or education. We know that older people are more likely to vote, that more educated people are more likely to vote, but, for the first time, the voting questions showed that parents with kids were less likely."

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The national voter turnout rate for Canada's federal election last May was 61.4 per cent, up from 59.1 per cent in 2008. With 73 percent of eligible voters casting a vote, Prince Edward Island had the highest rate of participation, while Newfoundland and Labrador had the lowest at 53 percent.

Apart from parents of young children, other groups less likely to vote are new immigrants and those in the skilled trades.

Because all three groups seem to have different reasons for not voting, improving Canada's rate of participation could be tricky, says Queen's University political studies professor Elizabeth Goodyear Grant.

"The cross-section of people who are non-participators is so diverse it doesn't suggest there is any good single strategy, which I guess is a bit disheartening for people who really would like to see higher participation rates," she told the Toronto Star.