Turning students into citizens
Matt Carter is a Ryerson University journalism student. He worked for the Toronto Sun before coming to CBC News Online.
Lindsay Mazzucco knows it's not always apathy that prevents young people from voting. She herself didn't always vote.
"I felt that I didn't know enough. I thought it would be worse to make an uninformed decision and just cast a ballot, than to stay out of it altogether," she says.
Mazzucco, 28, has changed since those days. She is now part of a four-person team called Student Vote with an ambitious mission: to turn Canada's elementary and high school students into passionate, informed citizens.
Lindsay Mazzucco wants students to gain a passion for politics and voting.
"We want them to learn to make good decisions. To think about what they're doing, not just to vote," she says.
The central idea behind the program is simple. Students across the country, from Grade 5 through Grade 12, vote in a mock election that parallels a real one. They vote for real parties, with real leaders and real platforms. They hold debates. They learn what a war room is. They even stuff their ballots into real Elections Canada ballot boxes.
Taylor Gunn shows how easy it is to cast a ballot.
"I think the strength of what we're doing is that it's not one school participating. It's thousands of them," says Taylor Gunn, 28, creator of Student Vote. "That adds to the relevance of it, and the excitement. It's a uniting experience for schools across the country."
The program's headquarters are in a dilapidated building on an industrial strip of Eastern Avenue in Toronto's east end. The walls are covered with maps of Canada, sectioned off into federal ridings. Boxes of pamphlets and posters are stacked anywhere there is space. The messy room that serves as the office for Gunn and Mazzucco is conspicuously missing a ceiling.
"I had to rip it down. It was way too low," Gunn says.
Student Vote 2006 will coincide with the upcoming federal election. It will be Student Vote's fifth parallel election, since it began in 2003 with a provincial election in Ontario.
The program has grown steadily since then. About 1,200 schools across the country took part in Student Vote 2004; already more than 2,400 schools are signed up for Student Vote 2006.
Gunn started the program, he says, because it seemed obvious that it should exist. Voter turnout among
18-to-24-year-olds has traditionally hovered around 25 per cent and that bothered him.
"I don't know why it's such a challenge for young people to get out and vote," he says. "Kids obviously aren't learning the value of citizenship. I don't know how, but it's gone missing."
If it has, it seems to be returning for many of the students who take part in Student Vote. After Student Vote
2004, 88 per cent of students said they would vote in the future, and 87 per cent agreed that voting was an important civic responsibility.
In comparison, a 2004 Globe and Mail study found that just 55 per cent of 18-to-24-year-olds believed that voting was a civic duty.
Gunn grins when he talks about the effect the program is having. Last May, when the team ran a mock election to parallel the provincial one in B.C., he travelled to Victoria to watch the student electors in action.
"It wasn't like they'd become political junkies all of the sudden, but they were taking it seriously. It was important to them. So when I saw that, it was confirmation," he says.
After Student Vote 2004, Gunn received an e-mail from the mother of a student elector. "She said she'd never voted before but she was going to this time, because her kid was coming home every day and talking about it," he says.
Mazzucco has similar stories. "We've heard of students going home and yelling at their parents or older siblings and telling them that they had better vote," she says. "Kids take the enthusiasm home with them."
The biggest hope for Gunn and Mazzucco is that increased voter turnout among young Canadians will render Student Vote unnecessary. The day may not be far off.
Turnout among 18-to-21-year-olds was up in the last federal election, to about 38 per cent. Even so, it was still far below the overall turnout of 61 per cent.
"They're not apathetic, they're just disconnected from the process," Mazzucco says. "I think it will change dramatically in the next five years. We might just end up seeing young voters voting in higher numbers than middle age voters."
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