More than 20,000 students have signed a petition asking Elections Canada to bring back on-campus voting booths for the Sept. federal election.
The petition claims that scrapping the Vote on Campus program amounts to voter suppression and that it restricts student participation in the election.
Vote on Campus started as a pilot program in 2015. The aim was to help post-secondary students cast a special ballot at polling stations set up on campus.
Esmé Decker, a second-year student at the University of British Columbia and first-time federal election voter, says she was "appalled" to find out the program would be cancelled.
"It should have been a priority, because this is a really important demographic," said the 19-year-old English major. "Having voting stations on campus is like a really important way to get out the vote to the youth."
Elections Canada says the program was cancelled this year because of the short timeline, given that the snap election was called in August.
"It's an entire program that requires a lot of lead time that we didn't have this year," explained B.C. spokesperson Andrea Marantz.
She says the program requires significant IT infrastructure to allow students across the country to vote using their home constituency's ballot.
Marantz added that the ongoing pandemic complicated the rollout of the program, which usually requires coordination with university administrations as well as student associations.
"There was no decision on many campuses across the country whether there would be students on campus in the fall," she said. "Students were at home. They were studying online. And it was a completely different situation than it is right now."
Youth vote should be a priority, says student
But Decker says that the program should have been a priority, especially since Elections Canada has identified the youth as an underrepresented demographic in voter turnout.
"I think Elections Canada must have known to some extent that there was [talk] about having an election this year and that it would probably be a snap election."
She organized the petition because she's worried that students will end up not voting, particularly if they're not aware that on-campus polling stations have been cancelled and they haven't made alternative voting arrangements.
The students behind the petition say they're considering the possibility of filing a lawsuit against Elections Canada.
Marantz insists that university students still have several options to vote.
They can register to vote by mail for their home riding, or at any of over 500 Elections Canada offices across the country before 6 p.m. on Sept. 14. All they need to provide is ID that confirms their address in their home riding.
If they live in residence or have moved for school, students can vote in person at an assigned polling station for the riding they now live in on Sept. 20. They can also vote at advance polls from Sept. 10-13 with proof of their new address, just like any other elector.