Students have numbers to influence Hamilton riding - if they can vote

Hamilton's college and university students have the numbers to affect the outcome of a local riding – but it comes at the exact time that new federal legislation has made it harder for them to vote.
Simon Fraser University student Tessica Truong convinces a fellow student to pledge to vote in the 2015 general election. Student union groups at McMaster and Mohawk are encouraging students to vote too. (CBC)

Hamilton's college and university students have the numbers to affect the outcome of a local riding — but that clout comes at the exact time that new federal legislation has made it harder for them to vote.

The new riding of Hamilton West-Ancaster-Dundas (HWAD), with no incumbent, is expected to be a wide open race. It also includes Hamilton's three major post-secondary schools — McMaster University, Mohawk College and Redeemer University College.

Combined, the three account for about 43,000 post-secondary students in the riding, and thousands of potential votes. Yet critics of the new Fair Elections Act argue that this sway comes just as students have to work harder than ever to cast a ballot. 

(The student vote) is enough to sway what the makeup of this government looks like.- Bilan Arte, the Canadian Federation of Students

Under the Fair Elections Act, students can no longer use a voter identification card as a form of ID. Now they need a driver's licence or other government ID with their Hamilton address on it, or two pieces of ID, such as a passport or health card, and one must have their Hamilton address on it.

That makes it harder for students, many who keep their address at their parents' house on their ID, said Bilan Arte, national chair for the Canadian Federation of Students.

"When the government formed in 2011, many of the seats were won by margins of less than 7,000," said Arte in an interview from the University of Guelph on Friday, where she was educating students on voting. "(The student vote) is enough to sway what the makeup of this government looks like."

McMaster and Redeemer were in the previous riding of Ancaster-Dundas-Flamborough-Westdale. This new redrawing adds Mohawk College's Fennell campus. 

This act has become a form of voter suppression.- Alex Johnstone, NDP candidate

For perspective on the student numbers, in the 2011 election in the riding of Ancaster-Dundas-Flamborough-Westdale, roughly 59,000 total votes were cast, with Conservative David Sweet winning by a margin of more than 15,000 votes.

The candidates have noticed the importance of the student vote, and the extra effort it will take.

At least two of HWAD's major party candidates — Alex Johnstone of the NDP and Filomena Tassi of the Liberals — attended McMaster University's ClubsFest this week to promote their parties and talk about the changes. (Conservative Vincent Samuel couldn't be reached for comment for this story.)

Tassi said the Liberals are pledging a youth advisory council that would focus, among other tasks, on improving the student vote. In this campaign, she said, she's making herself available for lectures or any other activities where students want to see her.

"Particularly in this riding, the student population is significant," she said. "And I really believe in engaging the students."

Johnstone said she's spending extra time with students at doors, helping them figure out how they can vote.

'A form of voter suppression,' candidate says

She said she talked to a student who was excited to vote, but her driver's licence had her old address and her bills were in her parents' names. Eventually, she told Johnstone she wasn't sure if she would vote after all.

"When you create so many hoops, really, this act has become a form of voter suppression," she said. "My question is why does the Conservative government not want students to vote?"

Historically, student voter turnout hasn't been high. In 2011, the overall voter turnout in Canada was 61.1 per cent, Elections Canada says. But for Canadians aged 18 to 24, it was only 38.8 per cent. 

But particularly in narrow races, the student vote still makes a difference. McMaster has 30,000 full and part-time students, and Redeemer an estimated 715.

Mohawk College's Fennell campus has about 12,000 students, although Luke Baylis, president of the college's student union, said the Fair Elections Act impacts them less because many of them are from the local area anyway.

McMaster has a new satellite polling station

Still, the Mohawk student union has formed a subcommittee to educate students on voting. The McMaster University Students Union (MSU) is doing a similar campaign called MacVotes, which it does every election, said Spencer Nestico-Semianiw, MSU's vice president education.

But this time, "we need to make sure students are aware of the new guidelines around being able to vote," he said.

He points out that McMaster's voter turnout is slightly higher than average for a university. For its last student union election, it was around 42 per cent.

McMaster is also one of 39 Canadian university and college campuses hosting a satellite polling station Oct. 5 to 8. With that, students can present documentation from their hometowns and cast a remote vote for those ridings. The new polls are part of a joint effort between Elections Canada and the Canadian Federation of Students.

MSU is also hosting an all-candidates debate for HWAD at the students centre atrium on Oct. 8 at 12 noon. Nestico-Semianiw believes all candidates will attend.

Students aren't the only ones impacted by the changes. The Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction argues that it also impacts people in shelters or without a permanent address.

The roundtable has a booth at Supercrawl this week to educate people on the Fair Elections Act changes.


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