Student unions 'very concerned' over loss of campus voting program
Elections Canada announced this week that it has suspended its Vote on Campus program
As the federal election approaches, student unions in northeastern Ontario want to make sure students know how to cast their ballot. This week, Elections Canada announced that the popular Vote on Campus program that was offered during the previous two federal elections, has been suspended this year — prompting concern from student groups.
"I think where my concern lies is that the young people, especially you know university, college age, are not seen as a priority," said Sarah McGowan, the director of communications with the Nipissing University Student Union.
"And I think it was surprising seeing as there has been quite a lot of talk about whether there was going to be an election or not this fall."
Elections Canada said the reasons for suspending the program are related both to the pandemic, as well as the short timeline to plan following a snap election call.
Advocates like McGowan worry the decision could affect turnout among young voters.
Decision to suspend program
The Vote on Campus program was introduced as a pilot project during the 2015 general election. It was offered again during the 2019 election, when about 110,000 ballots were cast on university campuses across the country, according to Elections Canada.
The program allowed students to cast a special ballot at a location on campus, meaning they could vote in whatever they consider to be their home riding, from anywhere in the country.
Elections Canada spokesperson Matthew McKenna said the program was meant "to address the unique barriers we know students face."
At Laurentian University, the vice president education of the Students General Association said she was surprised by the news that the program is suspended.
"With the COVID-19 pandemic and the election happening in less than a month, I definitely understand that voting this year is going to be complicated, but I think that students' voices still need to be heard and be a priority this year in the federal election," said Avery Morin, who will herself be voting for the first time in this election.
McKenna said the decision was made in the fall of 2020 to suspend the program for the next general election, mainly because of the challenges posed by the pandemic, and uncertainly about when students would be on campus. He said the fact that there was a minority government made it difficult to plan, since an election could be called at any time. He added the 2019 Vote on Campus program took a year of planning.
McKenna said this summer, Elections Canada started looking into offering a "scaled back version" of the program. But just as planning began, the election was called, and the program was put on pause again.
"It's not to say … that we look at it as a second tier thing. But at the same time we have to make sure that we can deliver on those things that are required of us in the legislation and that's the voting options that you see in the Canada Elections Act," McKenna said.
Students, like all voters, will be able to cast special ballots for their home riding either by mail, or at Elections Canada offices, which are set up in every riding. The deadline to apply for a special ballot is Sept. 14.
Concerns about voter turnout
McGowan, at Nipissing University, worries that voter turnout among students could be affected by the change. Particularly with the Sept. 14 deadline for special ballots approaching, at the same time when students are preparing for a new school year, and many are moving in the midst of a pandemic.
"I think the day that the federal election was called I was very concerned right off the bat because for me I think a lot of our students, you know they're very overwhelmed already," McGowan said. "I think Elections Canada really needs to put thought into how to make it as accessible as possible."
McKenna said Elections Canada is working with student groups to get information out to students. He also said Elections Canada is committed to offering the Vote on Campus program again for the next federal election.
"It will be back, students can rest assured," he said.