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Elections Canada pilot project aims to boost the student vote

A “wise move” says one academic who’s studied low youth-voting rates.

BY ROSANNA TAMBURRI | SEP 23 2015

In an effort to boost voter participation among young people, Elections Canada has launched a pilot project that will give students more options for when and where to vote in the upcoming federal election, and make it easier for them to vote in their home ridings.

The federal agency said it plans to open about 40 offices in advance of the October 19 vote at select universities and colleges across Canada. Some large campuses will have more than one office. It plans to open several more at Aboriginal Friendship Centres and at community centres.

Eligible voters can visit these Elections Canada offices to register to vote, request information and cast a ballot. Voting will be done by special ballot, which requires voters to write the name of their chosen candidate rather than marking an X beside a candidate’s name as is the case with election-day ballots. This will allow students living away from home to vote in their home ridings, if they wish to do so, without travelling home or using a mail-in ballot; students have the choice to vote either in their home riding or in the riding where they reside while at school. For students who plan to vote in their university riding, they can do so either at election-day or advance polling stations, which are sometimes located on or near university campuses.

For the upcoming vote, Elections Canada offices will be open October 5 to 8; advance polling stations will be open October 9 to 12.

The pilot project is meant to reduce barriers and make it easier for young people to vote, said David Rutherford, a spokesman for Elections Canada. “Young people vote less frequently than do older people” for various motivational and logistical reasons, he said. The program may be broadened in future election campaigns depending on its effectiveness, he added.

In the May 2011 federal election, 39 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds cast a vote, compared to 61 percent of the general population. A study prepared for Elections Canada in January 2015 by Antoine Bilodeau, associate professor of political science at Concordia University, and Luc Turgeon, associate professor of political science at the University of Ottawa, found that young people “systematically abstain from voting at every election” and at every level of government.

Young people are less likely to view voting as a civic duty compared to older Canadians, said Dr. Bilodeau. Young adults also have weaker ties to political parties, less defined opinions about the political process and less confidence in Elections Canada. “We were very surprised about that [latter finding]” given the agency’s solid reputation, he said. Maybe this reflects a cynicism about the broader electoral process, he suggested.

Notably, the study also found that, among young people, students were less likely to vote than non-students. Dr. Bilodeau acknowledged that this runs counter to the findings of others in the field and that further research is required.

He said young people have traditionally voted in fewer numbers than older Canadians. What has changed is that the gap between the proportion of young people who vote and older voters is growing. This is particularly worrisome because research has shown that those who vote the first time they are eligible to do so are likely to keep voting, while those who don’t are more likely to become habitual non-voters. “Then this becomes a problem for the functioning of the political system and for the expression of their interests in society,” he said.

Dr. Bilodeau praised Elections Canada’s efforts to engage young Canadians and called the pilot program “a wise move.” In contrast, he said changes in the 2014 Fair Elections Act that tightened identification requirements are only likely to create difficulty for young voters and discourage them from exercising their franchise. Dozens of professors, including Drs. Bilodeau and Turgeon, signed an open letter protesting the changes.

Meanwhile, the presidents of Ontario’s 20 universities have signed an open letter encouraging students to vote by supporting the dissemination of electoral information on campus, facilitating the availability of polling stations on or near campuses and encouraging the efforts of student groups that promote voting.  “As incubators of critical inquiry and debate, universities function as core institutions of a democratic society,” says the pledge. “It is in this role that Ontario universities pledge to support the fundamental democratic right of students to participate freely in the electoral processes where they are entitled to do so as citizens.”

The Canadian Federation of Students and the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations, the country’s two major student groups, have both launched campaigns this year urging students to vote.

As an advocacy group, CASA wants to ensure that the constituency it represents is “part of the process to select the government in the first place,” said Maria-Hélèna Pacelli, CASA executive director. CASA’s Get Out the Vote campaign, underway at more than 20 campuses, is a non-partisan and non-issue based campaign, she stressed. “We’re simply looking to encourage students to get out to the polls and place their votes,” she said.

With the election shaping up to be such a close horse race among Canada’s three major political parties, it “shows how much each vote is going to matter,” added Matthew Rios, CASA’s government and stakeholder relations officer. Students have an opportunity to make a difference, he added.

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  1. JH / September 23, 2015 at 13:33

    Another great organization doing amazing work on campus is Vote Savvy.
    This non-partisan group is conducting research and has some effective reach across Canada encouraging this demographic