By Edward Djan
Despite the loss of the Vote on Campus program in the upcoming federal election due to COVID-19, youth voter turnout advocates are trying to fill gaps left by a lack of voting booths on campus.
Introduced in 2015, the program offers young people the option of voting early for candidates in their riding through a special ballot at temporary Elections Canada locations at post-secondary institutions. The program also allows people to register to vote or update existing voter information.
Hanen Nanaa, a third-year politics and governance student and leader of the non-partisan political engagement campus effort XU Votes, said the group has been trying to inform students of their options for voting during this election.
One of the efforts is a social media campaign dubbed “My Voice Matters,” where students explain in short videos why they are voting and the importance of casting their ballot.
“We knew that challenges might exist, especially [when] a lot of students are doing virtual [school],” said Nanaa. “The reason for this campaign is to encourage students to share awareness and materials about the election.”
XU Votes is also branching out to TikTok, sharing information on the social media platform about the different ways students can vote.
“We wanted to create content [and] share it with students because this might be an engaging and easier way for them to know more about their rights in the upcoming election,” Nanaa said.
According to Nanaa, the problem for youth voter turnout during this election is not a lack of desire to cast a ballot, but rather the barriers students face with the loss of on-campus voting.
“Some students expressed that concern, they said it’s inaccessible for them, but a lot of them were open to actually go out and vote,” Nanaa said.
“The reason for this campaign is to encourage students to share awareness and materials about the election”
Vote on Campus was launched after Elections Canada looked at several surveys where young people said obstacles to voting, such as time and location of polling stations, made it difficult to cast a ballot.
Following the 2015 pilot program, Elections Canada saw the largest increase in voter turnout among voters aged 18 to 24, with 57.1 per cent of people in the age group casting a ballot. The agency turned the pilot into an ongoing program and expanded it during the 2019 election, going from having offices in 39 post-secondary schools in 2015 to 109 in 2019.
In an emailed statement to The Eyeopener, Elections Canada said the cancellation of the Vote on Campus program was a “difficult choice” to make because of the lack of time they had to plan for a snap election during a pandemic.
Beyond Ryerson, Elections Canada is slashing more than half of the polling stations it ran during the 2019 election, in 11 Greater Toronto Area ridings. The riding that will see the biggest change is Toronto Centre where Ryerson’s campus is located, with only 15 election-day polling stations compared to 91 in 2019, according to CBC News.
Elections Canada added that it made a decision in fall 2020 to ensure they had enough resources to deal with anticipated changes in voter behaviour due to the pandemic, including preparing for an increase in mail-in ballots and shifting their focus to the most vulnerable voters.
“This meant prioritized services for vulnerable electors such as those who live in care homes and are confined to their facility,” the statement read.
John Beebe, founder of the Democratic Engagement Exchange (DEE) at Ryerson, a group that supports initiatives advancing democracy, said there should be more campus-led campaigns that inform students of their options to vote that could remove some barriers for students.
“All groups, including university leadership, should be encouraging people and reminding students of all their options,” Beebe said. “It is really important that we get this information out so that students do realize all the different options they have for voting, and making it clear that they can vote in-person, by mail or they can even go ahead of time to an Elections Canada office.”
“It is really important that we get this information out so that students do realize all the different options they have for voting, and making it clear that they can vote in-person, by mail or they can even go ahead of time to an Elections Canada office”
Beebe also agrees with Nanaa that the problem facing youth voter turnout is accessibility rather than apathy.
“The biggest barriers for students that we’ve found is simply helping people understand how to vote,” Beebe said. “It’s not so much to convince students that they should vote.”
While DEE initially released an open letter with other youth turnout advocacy groups calling for Elections Canada to reverse their decision, Beebe said he understands Elections Canada was forced to make the decision due to the short election period and pandemic related restrictions.
“We had asked Elections Canada to keep on-campus voting but understand that given the circumstances they couldn’t do that,” Beebe said. “Ryerson requires anybody coming on campus to declare their vaccination status. Elections Canada couldn’t do that; they’re not allowed to require that to go vote.”
He added that Elections Canada has committed to resuming the program in the future.
First-year law student Lila Mansour said she has a desire to vote. Originally from Prince George, B.C., she moved to Toronto to attend the Lincoln Alexander School of Law.
“As an out-of-province student, it was a little bit scary trying to determine how I was going to be able to cast my ballot this year,” Mansour said.
“It’s just an extra hassle for students who are already trying to juggle so much, and especially for me as a student who’s adjusting to a new city, new campus, new program—it’s a lot more stressful. I don’t know if I would have voted if I wasn’t so passionate.”
Because of how much young people rely on the Vote on Campus program, some students say the pandemic is not a valid reason to cancel it.
Esmé Decker, a second-year English student at the University of British Columbia, created a petition calling on Elections Canada to reverse its decision. Over 21,600 people have signed the petition since it was created back in August.
Decker said she believes the decision amounts to voter suppression.
“Elections Canada knows how vulnerable youth are to not being able to access the vote,” Decker said. “I don’t think Elections Canada intended to suppress votes, but their job is to make sure that we can vote. I understand that it is difficult to pull off things in a pandemic, but I saw it happen with the provincial election here in B.C. and it worked out.”
“In Canada, we have the privilege of voting. I want young people to be aware of this honourable right”
Nanaa, a permanent resident who came to Canada as a refugee from Syria in 2016, said despite the loss of the program, young people have the right to vote and should exercise it.
“Where I used to live voting was not a privilege. That’s one of the reasons why I’m organizing this kind of work. In Canada, we have the privilege of voting. I want young people to be aware of this honourable right.”
Despite being the leader of the Ryerson Young Liberals, third-year politics and governance student Alex Spears believes every young person should vote regardless of their political affiliation.
“I’m grateful to be able to have the opportunity to vote. My mother grew up in Iran. Part of their history was not a democracy,” Spears said. “That gives me a great deal of appreciation for the fact that I’m lucky to live in this county, as flawed and imperfect as it is, that I am able to cast a ballot and that vote is counted.”
Students can visit Elections Canada’s website for information regarding registering to vote as well as details about voting by mail or at advance polling stations. Election day is on Monday, Sept. 20.