‘Pop-up’ polling stations target students, aboriginals

Canada Politics
A pop-up polling station at the University of Guelph. PHOTO COURTESY: Tyler Valiquette

In an effort to make it easier for young people and aboriginal Canadians to vote, more than 70 Elections Canada pop-up polling stations are open across the country until Thursday.

The stations can be found in every province and territory, on post-secondary campuses and at youth and aboriginal centres, and voters can use any pop-up station regardless of where their home riding is. Voters don’t have to pre-register as long as they bring the correct ID for voting, and the sites use special ballots that require them to write in their candidate’s name instead of marking an X in a circle.

The aim is to increase voter turnout in both First Nations and the youngest voters, who increasingly aren’t coming to the polls during federal elections. Adding up the campuses and community centres served by the pop-up polling locations indicates that about one million voters could be served by them, says Grace Kennedy, executive director of Be The Vote.

The Elections Canada pilot project is paying off for some post-secondary students. 

“Since yesterday at 10, there’s been lineups,” Yvonne Su, co-founder of Vote Savvy, said of the poll at the University of Guelph.

“Right now the wait is about an hour and a half,” Su told Yahoo Canada News.

Younger Canadians have always voted at a lower rate than older ones. But in recent years the overall voter turnout has dropped and the gap between turnout for younger and older voters has widened, according to Elections Canada. In the 2011 federal election, overall voter turnout was 61.1 per cent, but just 38.8 per cent of eligible voters aged 18-24 showed up at the polls. And research released by Elections Canada in 2012 showed that voter turnout on First Nations reserves was also below the national average, at just under 45 per cent.

The youth vote came up in a VICE interview with Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau held on Monday night.

“I’d love for you to vote Liberal, but I don’t even care as long as you vote,” he told the audience.

New to voting

Because the last federal election was held in 2011, most university students voting in this Oct. 19 election will be doing so for the first time.

Vote Savvy, a non-partisan grassroots organization, is focused on making their experience at the pop-up poll a positive one, Su says. Volunteers and workers are enthusiastic about voting and provide snacks to students waiting in line to cast their ballots.

The negative tone of election ads and campaigning can be a turnoff for young students who are new to voting, Su says. 

“If that’s your first interaction with politics and it’s very strongly emotional or negative, then I don’t think that’s a very engaging point to start with,” she says.

CBC comedian Rick Mercer spoke about the power of youth voting in an interview with Metro Morning on Monday. 

“I would like to think so,” Mercer told host Matt Galloway when asked if he thinks young voters will participate in this election. “It’s going to happen, whether it happens this election or the next election. One of these days it’s going to happen and it will change everything. It will change the country. If young people show up to vote, it will change everything.”

Mercer pointed out that many young people or non-voters simply may not know how to vote.

“They’ve never voted,” he said of some non-voters, young or old. “They’re intimidated by the process. Their parents never took them to vote.”

That concern about the impression that voting is complicated was echoed by both Su and Kennedy.

“People are shocked and excited that there’s a polling station on campus because to their knowledge voting is a lot more complicated to this,” Su says.

She worries that the focus on changed identification rules and Elections Canada’s heavy promotion of online registration could leave young voters believing they aren’t eligible to cast a ballot if they didn’t register in advance.

Kennedy would like to see more promotion of the fact that students do have the opportunity to register on election day, right at their polling station. 

“What Elections Canada has not been communicating is that you can in fact update that information when you go to the polls on the day of voting,” she says. “When you’re just pushing that people need to be registered to vote, I worry about the perception that it’s a big process.”

Along with the fact that some young people aren’t aware of what is required for them to vote, they could also feel removed from the political process and feel like they aren’t addressed by the candidates. 

“I really do think there’s a very large group of young Canadians who are just disengaged from politics,” Kennedy says. “There’s definitely a disconnect between youth realizing the implications of policy on their everyday life or in their future.”

Courting youth vote

Some of the federal leaders have tried to appeal to younger voters with party policy announcements focused on post-secondary education. The NDP promised to remove the interest on government student loans, for example, and provide additional grants. The Conservatives have announced plans to increase the tax credits that can be claimed for tuition and textbooks. And in announcing his party’s platform at the University of Ottawa on Monday, Trudeau promised to increase the maximum for the Canada Student Grant, given to low-income students, for full-time and part-time students and to make it easier for more students to qualify.

But at the end of the day, youth issues go beyond tuition costs and student loans, Su says. 

“Youth issues are just everyday issues faced by a younger person,” she says. “I feel like this time around a lot of young people are realizing that they need to press their issues and they need to show up.”