The decision by Elections Canada to scrap its successful Vote on Campus program this year is a setback for the democratic process, a political engagement group says, but pressing issues could still compel the youngest cohort of Canadian voters to cast a ballot.
"We see this cancellation as damaging to our democracy," said Camellia Wong, communications director for the Toronto-based Future Majority, an organization that advocates on behalf of millennial and Gen-Z voters.
"We've seen decades of research that states that when you engage people in democracy when they are young, you have the opportunity to create this entire generation of lifetime voters," she continued.
Elections Canada introduced Vote on Campus as a pilot program on 39 campuses during the 2015 federal election. At that point, political engagement and turnout among young adults in Canada had, with some fluctuations, been declining since the 1970s, according to a report from the Library of Parliament.
The 2015 federal election then saw an unprecedented 18.3-point increase in turnout among eligible 18 to 24 year olds, with 57.1 per cent casting a ballot compared to 38.8 per cent in 2011. According to Elections Canada data, it was the biggest jump in turnout among this age group since the agency began making demographic estimates in 2004.
Similarly, among 18-year-old voters eligible to cast a ballot for the first time, turnout increased 17.7 points to 58.3 per cent from 40.5 per cent in 2011.
Vote on Campus was then expanded for the 2019 election, with 119 temporary voting locations set up at 98 post-secondary institutions nationwide. On its website, Elections Canada says the initiative was "very well received and allowed more than 110,000 electors, mostly students, to vote on their campus." That was up from about 70,000 in 2015.
The program offered students away at university or college the opportunity to cast a special ballot for their home riding, or to update their address information so they could vote in the riding where their campus was located. It was designed to limit barriers to voting for the youngest eligible cohort, who are often living away from home or frequently changing addresses.
"That can cause confusion about where they should or can vote when a federal election comes around," said Samantha Reusch, executive director of the youth civic engagement group Apathy is Boring, in an interview with CBC's Power & Politics.
WATCH | Power & Politics: Lack of on-campus voting causing concern for youth voter turnout:
Elections Canada says the decision to cancel the Vote on Campus program for the coming Sept. 20 federal election was initially made back in the fall of 2020 because of two main challenges: the COVID-19 pandemic and the electoral uncertainty created by a minority government.
"The minority government meant it was difficult for Elections Canada to provide campus administrators with a clear timeline to secure the space required and help us recruit the election workers needed to deliver the program. Normally, this process takes many months," a spokesperson for the federal agency said in an email.
Additionally, nobody knew when post-secondary students might return to campuses for in-person classes, according to the spokesperson. Elections Canada had to divert resources to ensure "safe services for the electorate as a whole" amid the pandemic and the Vote on Campus program was scrapped as a result.
Elections Canada also says it is committed to offering the program during future elections.
Sharp rebukes from students, voting groups
The announcement in late August that Vote on Campus would not be offered drew immediate criticism.
The Undergraduates of Canadian Research-Intensive Universities, an organization representing roughly 225,000 students across the country, penned an open letter calling on Elections Canada to reinstate Vote on Campus, saying that its cancellation would be "considerably detrimental to ensuring that students and young people have accessible ways of voting for their home ridings."
And an online petition demanding that special ballots be offered on post-secondary campuses has garnered more than 21,000 signatures.
"Students and youth are an integral demographic to include in our democratic system," the petition reads. "With already busy schedules and living situations often far from home, students need the Vote on Campus program in order to have fair access to the democratic process."
Shashwat Parikh, a student at the University of Toronto, says the COVID-19 pandemic only increases the need for voting options on campus.
"Especially now in the time of COVID, when people are less likely to venture from the area that they live in, work in, study in … It's especially important to make it convenient for people to vote," he said.
"And I think making voting an option at universities is a great way to do that."
Easy accessibility is a primary concern for young voters, Wong says, adding many post-secondary students don't have a vehicle or reliable public transit to get them to a polling station.
"On-campus polling stations allow young Canadians to have their voices heard in their home ridings," said Wong, who herself voted in a federal election for the first time while at university.
Students still have the option to vote by mail, which requires them to register online by Sept.14. They can go in-person to pick up a special ballot at an Elections Canada office, which also comes with a Sept. 14 deadline, or vote at a regular polling station come election day.
Wong says she believes eligible students will still be compelled to vote by some of the major issues at play in this election, most notably climate change and precarious work.
"We've seen from trends that young Canadians come out to vote when there are issues that matter at the ballot box. And in this election there are."