Election misses mark with students

University of Toronto linguistics student Filip Tisma voted in the last federal election, but has no intention of casting a ballot this time.

University of Toronto linguistics student Filip Tisma voted in the last federal election, but has no intention of casting a ballot this time.

"I'd rather just not vote and send a message that way that I'm unpleased with how the voting system is turning out in this country," said Tisma, 22.

Tisma lives in the Trinity-Spadina riding and feels like his ballot would be worthless in the May 2 vote since New Democrat Olivia Chow has dominated the riding since 2006.

But he also hopes that abstaining from the vote will increase the already low voter turnout rate and lead to change in how politicians woo their constituents.

Overall voter turnout hit a historical low in the 2008 election with nearly 59 per cent of registered voters casting ballots. As usual, the lowest rate among age groups was youth, aged 18 to 24, at 37 per cent.

Carleton University political science professor Jon Pammett warns that Canada could reach a new all-time low for voter turnout in the coming vote.

A student studies outside at the University of Toronto campus on Monday ahead of exam time. (Amber Hildebrandt/CBC)
"There isn't really a reason to be optimistic on the turnout front," says Pammett. "It's kind of a depressing conclusion."

No key issue appears to be galvanizing the electorate, says Pammett, though the election is still in the early stages, with four more weeks to go.

Pammett, who has extensively studied voter turnout, says the troubling trend is not that youth aren't voting — which has always been true — but that voters are taking longer to engage in the electoral process than ever before. 

Politicians have embraced Twitter and Facebook in what has been dubbed the "social media" election, but many students said the message isn't reaching them. Either they don't use Twitter or they only use Facebook to connect with friends.

Chris Landon, a teaching assistant in the University of Toronto's history department, says a lot of things are competing for people's attention in our media-saturated society, so it's no surprise traditional and even new campaign methods aren't working.

"Politicians are having to try to find new ways to make themselves relevant," said Landon. "They're trying Twitter, they're trying Facebook, they're trying all these social media outlets. I don't know if they're being successful."

Non-governmental groups are also seeking to inspire voters to turn up at polling stations. A non-partisan site, Leadnow.ca, hopes to turn the tide of voter apathy across the generations by stirring online debate on its site. One Facebook page urged youth to create flash mobs at polling stations.

An image of unknown origin also recently began making rounds. It targets young people by asking, "You wouldn't let your grandparents choose who you date. Then why let them choose your government?"

Busy with exams

Information for student voters

To vote, students who moved for school must decide which address they consider their residence, if they are choosing between their school-year  versus summertime address. Then they must register to vote in that riding.

If election day isn't convenient, students can vote early:

  • At advance polls on April 22, 23 and 25.
  • By mail or in person at an Elections Canada office.

More information is available at www.elections.ca, in the Voters: Ways to Vote section. 

Source: Elections Canada

Though the advertisement made many students smile, they said the calls to action would soon be forgotten in the midst of their busiest time of year: exams.

"I'm an active student," said University of Toronto Paraskevi Lagaditis, 28, of Vancouver. "We don't have any time for anything else. Only classes matter in life."

University of Toronto student Jennifer Wong didn't even know there was a federal election when asked whether she was voting.

"We don't read the newspaper," Wong, 21, of Vaughan, said of her fellow students. "We don't have time to watch the news."

Getting youth to vote is key, says Pammett, because it forms a habit of electoral and community engagement that lasts for life.

"If young people miss the first few opportunities to vote in elections, the chances are less that they'll pick up the habit later on," said Pammett.

And that means fewer voters overall. Pammett says the tipping point for Canada will be when we dip to a 50 per cent overall turnout rate, nine per cent lower than the 2008 rate, at which point calls will begin in earnest for mandatory voting.

To prevent that, Landon says perhaps there may be only one way left to insert enough interest in humdrum elections.

"Maybe if you put the federal leaders in a house rigged up with security cameras in a reality television style sort-of living situation you might generate more interest," he jokes.