The stats, by now, are familiar: Young people don’t vote. Elections Canada is trying to change that, by bringing registration and voting right to students themselves.
Elections Canada has set up one-stop-shops on university campuses, colleges, Native Friendship Centres and some YMCAs. For four days – Oct. 5 to 8 – anyone can register to vote and cast a ballot, all within about ten minutes.
These pop-up voting booths differ from regular polling stations in that they can serve anyone, whether or not they live in that riding. People can vote by special ballot, making it particularly convenient for those, like students, who may be outside their home ridings on election day, but want their vote to count back home. (For special ballots, however, voters need to know who they’re voting for – the ballots are blank.)
“It’s an effort to capture the youth wherever they may be, so we’re taking it to them,” said Joan O’Neill, Elections Canada’s field liaison officer for Eastern Ontario.
And she hopes voting is habit-forming: That young people who vote in this election will cast a ballot in future ones, as well.
“They have shown that if you cultivate the habit early, they will continue. If you don’t cultivate the habit early, you tend not to all of a sudden take it up when you are older.”
Last federal election, most Canadians under 35 didn’t vote at all: turnout among 18-34 year olds was only about 42 per cent. 73 per cent of people aged 55-74 voted that election.
An Elections Canada study that year found 64 per cent of young people surveyed reported barriers to access: They don’t know where or how to vote; or it’s perceived as too inconvenient.
The bright yellow Elections Canada booth at Carleton University’s bustling University Centre is tough to miss. It features prominent signs and lots of smiling staff, many of whom are university students themselves.
The staff help walk voters through the process, from telling them what identification is required, to helping them fill out the form to obtain their special ballot, to watching them stuff the completed ballots into the box at the end.
“It was great. It was super-easy,” said Carleton student Stephanie Lawrence. “My riding is actually in Saskatchewan, so this makes it a lot more convenient.”
It was also a relief not to have to navigate the special ballot system on her own, she said. Instead, this took her under 10 minutes.
“I was looking it up, trying to figure out how I was supposed to do the voting by special ballot, go in and get stuff and mail it in. It was really complicated,” she said.
“I found out about this today and I was like, ‘Yay, it’s way easier now.’”
Keltie Gardiner might not have voted at all were it not for this booth.
“I wouldn’t have been able to do it if I hadn’t gotten help. They were very clear, they sat me down, gave me all the materials that I needed.”
Turnout has been steady at the Carleton voting stations, says Ottawa Centre additional assistant returning officer George Shaw, though he couldn’t give a specific number.
“I think it’s all about location. This is convenient for them. They can catch us in between classes, they don’t have to go into town. I think it’s largely a matter of going to where the voters are.”
The publicity helps: The university sent out emails; Elections Canada set up Facebook pages and hired students to tell people about the booths. Even before they opened Monday, he said, people were showing up with their forms filled out, asking if they could vote.
Voting has been on students’ minds this election, said social work student Genevieve Roots.
“I think that on campus there’s been a lot more awareness.”
“Especially since we have the voting here, it’s definitely much more prominent. It’s much more present in all of our classes with all of our peers. It’s definitely had a big impact and pushed a lot more people to vote, I think.”
Roots wishes the political parties would take Elections Canada’s lead.
“I feel we’re really forgotten and pushed aside, so I don’t feel any particular group tailoring towards us, our population, our generation.”
This tends to create a self-reinforcing trend: Young people don’t vote, so political campaigns don’t target them, so they don’t feel driven to vote.
“When parties aren’t actually reaching out to us and educating us and taking that initiative then it just kind of furthers that stigma and that stereotype and furthers us not voting,” Roots said.
This is Joshua Zarate’s first time, though not his first opportunity to vote.
“I think every other year I’ve always been busy and haven’t been mindful of it,” he said.
This time, he said, he educated himself on the issues and is casting his ballot. And being able to do it in such a convenient location helps too.
Elections Canada has 71 pop-up voting locations across the country open from Monday, Oct. 5 to Thursday Oct. 8.
It’s just a pilot project, so Elections Canada will have to evaluate whether to make these booths a regular feature in subsequent elections. But so far, feedback’s been positive.
“We have an exit survey and I was leafing through them and people are saying, ‘It’s convenient, it’s easy, if I had known it was this easy, I’ll tell all my friends,’” Shaw said.
“It’s quite remarkable how enthusiastic someone can be about how easy it is to vote right here on campus.”