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Students tell Elections Canada to do more after it cancels Vote on Campus program

Post-secondary students are telling Elections Canada staff to do "as much as they can" to encourage students to cast ballots after the agency cancelled the Vote on Campus program for the 2021 federal election.

Program suspended due to pandemic, snap election, says Office of the Chief Electoral Officer

Students visit an advance polling station at Ryerson University in Toronto in 2019. Elections Canada says it's not offering the Vote on Campus program this September for logistical reasons. (Alvin Yu/CBC)

Post-secondary students are telling Elections Canada staff to do "as much as they can" to encourage students to cast ballots after the agency cancelled the Vote on Campus program for the 2021 federal election.

"There's youth voter studies out there that show youth believe voting doesn't make a difference, and I think these types of actions, and the lack of deployment of special ballot polling stations, exacerbates those negative trends," Saad Shoaib, vice-president external for the University of British Columbia's Alma Mater Society, told CBC News. 

Elections Canada (the Office of the Chief Electoral Officer) said it's not offering Vote on Campus this September for logistical reasons: the pandemic and a minority government made it too difficult to plan anything on a campus.

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Vote on Campus allowed students to vote in their home ridings while away at school. Temporary voting offices were set up on campus for students to vote by special ballot or update their information so they could cast ballots in the local riding. 

It started as a pilot in 2015, and expanded to 109 colleges and universities in the 2019 federal election. 

"It takes months and months to organize Vote on Campus, and during a minority government, an election can be declared at any time," Rejean Grenier, a spokesperson for Elections Canada, told CBC News. 

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Executive director of Apathy is Boring, Samantha Reusch, talks to Power & Politics about how the lack of on-campus polling stations can impact youth voter turnout this election. 3:38

"The pandemic didn't help at all. Most of the universities, when we were starting to plan this campaign ... they were closed from March 2020 — and they didn't know when they were going to be reopening." 

Grenier said returning officers who work for Elections Canada are making efforts to put polling stations in student neighbourhoods where possible. 

Vote by mail-in, special ballot

Students still have the option to vote by mail-in ballot (deadline to apply is Sept. 14) or special ballot (which must be picked up by Sept. 14) at an Elections Canada office. 

But neither option goes far enough, say Shoaib and McMaster Student Union president Denver Della-Vedova, who have co-signed a letter to Stéphane Perrault, the country's chief electoral officer. 

"I think it falls on Elections Canada to do as much as they can to ensure that students are able to vote and have equitable, fair access to voting in every way possible," said Della-Vedova. 

"This is a need," said Shoaib. "This is a need for students. They need to be able to respond in a quick manner and I think this calls for special circumstances. They should make every effort to ensure that students have the right, accessible mechanisms on campuses to vote."

At the bare minimum, the students say Elections Canada needs to commit to reinstating the program for the next federal election. 

While Elections Canada says it is committed to continuing the program, it is not making any promises. Its website says any external service point program — of which Vote on Campus has been a part — "will not be deployed for the 44th [general election] in a pandemic or post-pandemic situation."

It goes on to say that would be re-evaluated if pandemic restrictions are lifted. 

But if another minority government were to be elected, allowing another snap election to be called in short order, Grenier said pandemic logistics would again be a challenge. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jackie Sharkey is a regional producer supporting CBC bureaus across Ontario. She has been been based in Kitchener since the station was created in 2013, after working for CBC radio in Kelowna, Quebec City and Rankin Inlet, NU.

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