Opinion

The cancellation of the Vote on Campus program is an extraordinary mistake

Youth voting broke records because of Vote on Campus, which introduced an entirely new way for students to vote, writes Western University student Ethan Gilhula.

'Politicians seeking victory must remember that when Canadians can’t vote, everyone loses'

Canadians aged 18-24 are one of the few demographics whose primary occupation — their education — often requires residing outside of the jurisdiction in which they would normally cast their ballots. The science is clear: the further you live from the polls, the less likely you are to vote. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

This column is an opinion from Ethan Gilhula, an economics student at Western University. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

I don't know who's going to win this election, but I know who's going to lose.

Every time we vote, young people in the 18-24 age group top the charts for "lowest voter turnout." The problem isn't unique to Canada: democracies across the globe have consistently reported minimal political involvement from young people.

Some believe low youth turnout is caused by apathy, a lack of motivation or interest, or some combination thereof. Others believe young people don't vote because politicians will not cater to a non-voting demographic — as if politicians and youth are engaged in a sort of anti-democracy catch-22.

The truth is far more straightforward. The 18-24s are one of the few demographics whose primary occupation — their education — often requires residing outside of the jurisdiction in which they would normally cast their ballots. And, no matter your age, the science is clear: the further you live from the polls, the less likely you are to vote.

That's why Elections Canada's decision not to open polls on campuses is an extraordinary mistake.

Record-breaking jump

In 2011, 55 per cent of the 18-24s voted. In 2015, they made a record-breaking jump to 67 per cent — a full 12 point increase. What changed?

It wasn't mail-in voting which got young people to turn out, and it certainly wasn't an undiscovered interest in federal politics. Youth voting broke records because of Elections Canada's comprehensive Vote on Campus program, which introduced an entirely new way for students to vote. 

For the first time, rather than making the trek back to their home district, voting in an entirely new jurisdiction, or applying for a mail-in ballot, young people on campus could cast a special ballot for their candidate of choice at a specially designated on-campus polling station. The program additionally partnered with educational institutions to promote student voter registration.

It was notably effective. Elections Canada saw an increase in engagement from the 18-24 age demographic in 2015, and reported that, when asked, nearly a quarter of the electors who cast their ballots through the program said they would not otherwise have voted.

This year, Elections Canada will not be running Vote on Campus, nor have they committed to ensuring regular polling stations will be made easily accessible to students.

In a pandemic during which civic engagement has reached all-time lows across the nation, now is not the time to scrap the only measure in recent history which has markedly improved voter turnout. 

New approach needed

Rather, now is the time to look for an all-of-the-above solution to low turnout. Nothing should be taken off the table when fundamental democratic rights are in question.

Elections Canada, and its partners in the private and public sectors, must take an entirely new approach. They should start with reopening polls on campuses — relying not only on the initiatives which worked in the past, but on new and innovative ideas which have yet to be tried.

Controversial solutions to low turnout like internet and universal mail-in voting cannot be dismissed outright. 

Access to polls, on-campus or otherwise, should no longer be taken for granted.

Stagnant and declining voter turnout must not be ignored at the expense of voters.

Though young people may lead in low civic engagement, declining turnout isn't just a campus issue. It's a broad-reaching threat to Canada's democracy, leaving no demographic untouched. When the stakes are so high, no Canadian should lack the means to make their voice heard.

This election, politicians seeking victory must remember that when Canadians can't vote, everyone loses.


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ethan Gilhula is an economics student at Western University.

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