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By Scott Roberts

For Mary Peter, voting in tomorrow’s Ontario provincial election will mean more than marking a box beside a name. It will mean  for the first time  that she has a say in deciding how she’s governed. And she takes it very seriously.

“I want a political leader who will address issues that are important to me and the only way I have a say in that is to vote,” said Peter, a first-year nursing student at Ryerson University. “One vote does matter and if you don’t exercise your right to vote, you forfeit your right to complain.”

Peter, whose family hails from Sri Lanka, doesn’t take voting for granted. She cherishes the right knowing that, in some places, the practice isn’t encouraged like it is in Canada.

“Although women in Sri Lanka have the right to vote, many are discouraged from doing so,” said Peter. “And female involvement in politics is rare. In Canada everyone is encouraged to get out and vote. ”

But Peter is among a diminishing minority in Canada. Recent statistics show that the turnout for first-time voters (the 18-24-year-old age category) is rapidly decreasing. According to Kids Voting Canada, a non-partisan group devoted to educating teens about voting, students are staying away from the polls in record numbers.

In the 1993 federal election, just 38 per cent of first-time voters cast a ballot. And in the 2000 election, federal turnout among first-timers slid to an all-time low of 22 per cent.

Nelson Wiseman, a political scientist at the University of Toronto, believes students in Ontario feel left out of the election process and, as a result, refuse to vote.

“First-time voters are a special group,” said Wiseman. “Generally speaking, they don’t own property and don’t really have a stake in most of the campaign issues. They feel they have less of a stake in the entire system and end up not voting.” Wiseman thinks students have become jaded by the show of politics. ”

At university, students begin to develop critical and analytical thinking. Each year, more and more are starting to think that it doesn’t matter who they elect. Many young people have become cynical and don’t want to legitimize the voting process,” said Wiseman.

Anika Kapoor, a fourth-year business retail student, thinks there’s more to the story.

“The messages that the candidates want to get across to students should be more in our face,” said Kapoor. “I think the candidates are ignoring the students and focussing their campaigns on older groups. As a result, a lot of students don’t know the issues.”

It seems that low voter turnout among students has struck a chord within Curriculum Services Canada, the group responsible for approving high school curriculums across the country. This year, the organization approved Kids Voting Canada’s plan to introduce teenagers to the election process within the school setting.

Meanwhile, RyeSAC has been campaigning heavily over the past two weeks to make students aware of election issues as part of a province-wide initiative led by the Canadian Federation of Students.

“We’ve done our best to try and make students aware of the issues as well as how to vote, when to vote and where to vote,” said Ken Marciniec, president of RyeSAC. “We’re trying to make it as convenient as possible for students… There will be several advanced polling stations available across campus this week. On Election Day, students living on campus can vote at the ILLC (International Living and Learning Centre).”

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