Want to engage non-voters? Don't bully them, say civic-action groups

Get-out-the-vote initiatives are as old as democracy itself, but there is a dawning awareness that badgering people into casting a ballot is the wrong way to go about it.

Groups like Apathy Is Boring take a non-partisan, non-judgmental approach

During the current federal election campaign, the civic-engagement group Apathy Is Boring has been publicizing the fact that five million millennials (5MMV) are eligible to vote and has been encouraging young people to sign a chalkboard as a symbolic pledge to cast a ballot on Oct. 19. (Apathy Is Boring)

There are two things you can count on in every Canadian election campaign: lofty promises and collective hand-wringing over low voter turnout.

There's not much to be done about the former, but many people believe they can correct the latter.

Get-out-the-vote initiatives are as old as democracy itself, and while they have had their successes, there is a dawning awareness that badgering people into casting a ballot is the wrong way to go about it.

Just ask Brianna Barsanti-Innes, a 23-year-old medical researcher in Montreal, who will be voting for only the second time on Oct. 19.

Over the years, she has come in contact with voter-engagement groups that tried to incite outrage over the politicians in power and almost bully her into voting.

"They always seem to have an attitude of condescension and [a tone of], 'You should be voting, why aren't you voting?'" said Barsanti-Innes.

Brianna Barsanti-Innes was inspired to take a greater interest in voting after speaking with volunteers with the group Apathy Is Boring during the recent Pop Montreal music festival. (Apathy Is Boring)

She says that she has always been aware of civic issues but felt alienated and overwhelmed by political messaging.

What got through to her, she says, was a non-threatening conversation she had with members of a national civic-action group in September – during a music festival, no less.

Amid the laid-back, celebratory atmosphere of Pop Montreal, volunteers with a group called Apathy Is Boring approached Barsanti-Innes. Rather than brow-beating her into taking a political stance, they merely asked whether she would be casting a ballot in the upcoming federal election.

"Their way of doing it is without a partisan platform and opening with a question: 'Do you know there's an election, and are you registered to vote?'"

From there, she got into an involved conversation about why voting is an important civic duty and how it gives her a stake in the country's political direction. And that's what ultimately spurred Barsanti-Innes to want to cast a ballot later this month.

Addressing low voter turnout

As Oct. 19 approaches, many civic-action groups are trying to reverse the trend of declining voter turnout, which hit an all-time low — 61 per cent — during the 2011 federal election.

Some, such as 1VoteMatters in Calgary, are trying to spur people to vote strategically. Others, such as Apathy Is Boring, are taking a less-prescriptive approach and are simply hoping to inspire people to vote — period.

#PledgeToVote, a collaboration between CBC and Google, asks people to declare their intention to vote online and persuade their friends and family to do the same. So far, it has received more than 98,000 pledges.

The civic-engagement group Samara Canada has produced Vote Pop-Up, a kit designed to help community groups across the country educate first-time voters. (Canadian Press)

In the past, Elections Canada was involved in get-out-the-vote campaigns, but the Fair Elections Act, which was passed in 2014, forbids the non-partisan agency that oversees federal elections and administers the Canada Elections Act from promoting the act of voting.

During the initial hearings on the Fair Elections Act, the government argued Elections Canada should not be involved in the promotion of voting and that such activities should fall to the political parties.

But if the aim is to increase voter engagement, the best way to do it is to adopt a non-partisan approach, says John Beebe, outreach manager for Samara Canada, which works to increase civic engagement.

In the lead-up to the current election, Samara Canada has produced Vote Pop-Up, a kit designed to help community groups across the country educate first-time voters.

We're starting with a very simple question: "What matters to you?"- John Beebe, Samara Canada

The kit includes information on the type of identification you need to show at the polling station and how to properly fill out a ballot.

But while much of the material explains how to vote, Samara is also asking non-voters to ponder a more fundamental question.

"We're not asking them to vote, we're not asking them who they're voting for, we're not even mentioning political parties," said Beebe. "We're starting with a very simple question: 'What matters to you?'"

Beebe says this approach is a response to research that suggests non-voters often feel daunted by the political process.

"The responses we often get are, 'Politicians don't listen to me' or 'They don't care about me' or 'It doesn't matter, they're all the same,'" he said.

"We don't argue with them and say, 'Here are three reasons why it does matter.' Instead, we change the conversation and ask them, 'So, what do you care about? What is important to you?' and you develop a conversation, and you genuinely listen to them.

"And then, when they go and vote, they're not voting on politicians. They're voting on issues."

'No one likes being told what to do'

With any kind of voter-engagement initiative, "you're really targeting the people who haven't made up their mind yet, so in my opinion, it's important to remain neutral," said Jon Wiltzen, an Edmonton IT professional who in 2011 created an online voter-engagement tool also, coincidentally, called Pledge to Vote. (It is not connected to the CBC News/Google project.)

Student groups across the country have been encouraging fellow students to vote in the upcoming federal election. (CBC)

Wiltzen's project garnered 50,000 respondents during the 2011 general election campaign and more than 5,000 in last spring's provincial election in Alberta.

"You don't want to sway anyone either way, because then, you end up reaching a point where you're telling people how to vote, and I don't think people respond to that," said Wiltzen. "No one likes being told what to do."

Students at the University of Regina have also been trying to increase voter engagement but are well aware of the human tendency to dismiss dogma, said Lynn Barber, a leader in the university's student union.

While the union has taken a non-partisan approach, it has been promoting the idea that voting is a privilege.

"We make sure that [non-voters] understand that this is really important and it's kind of cool to be able to take part in something that's bigger than yourself, knowing that this is something that the whole country is doing," Barber said.

Barsanti-Innes's experience with Apathy Is Boring has been so positive that she has since become a member of the organization's street team, which appears at music festivals and other cultural gatherings across the country to raise awareness about voting.

One of the reasons she believes so strongly in the cause is that research shows that people who don't vote in their late teens and early 20s are unlikely to do so when they get older.

"It's a habit-building thing," she said. "I'm 23 — if I don't get my friends to vote in this election, their chance of voting in a later election are drastically decreased. There was a time pressure on it that I didn't really consider before."


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