Mock election aims to make voting 'viral' among youth

Canada's chief electoral officer appealed to young people Tuesday to "take the act of voting viral" as he kicked off Student Vote, a mock election campaign in schools.
Toronto student Zane Schwartz, 17, casts a mock ballot on Tuesday with Olivia Suppa, 17, of Woodbridge, Ont. ((Patrick Morrell/CBC))

Zane Schwartz first cast a ballot when he was 10 years old. It may have only been for a mock election, but it stoked an interest in the electoral process unusual among people his age.

"I will be engaged for the rest of my life because I had the chance to practice," says Schwartz, 17, who attends Leaside High School in Toronto.

Schwartz is still a few months away from his 18th birthday so won't be able to vote in the official federal election. But at his high school he will be visiting a mock polling station with official-looking ballots after a nearly month-long mock election campaign that will even include visits from candidates in his riding. 

It's part of Student Vote, a program created in 2003, to de-mystify the election process for students and teach them about civic engagement in hopes that it turns students into active voters later in life. 

Young people are the age group least likely to vote. A dismal 37.4 per cent of citizens aged 18 to 24 — 1.1 million people — voted in the last federal election. That's 30 percentage points below the proportion of registered seniors who cast a ballot and 20 under the overall turnout rate.

Canada's chief electoral officer, Marc Mayrand, said if all citizens in the youngest age bracket, aged 18 to 24, voted, it would've resulted in the casting of 800,000 extra ballots — equivalent to the number of constituents in about 10 federal ridings.

Mayrand visited Toronto on Tuesday to kickoff the Student Vote campaign and send a message that he hoped young people will "take the act of voting viral."

Canada's chief electoral officer Marc Mayrand says young people can make a significant contribution to the country's democracy. ((Patrick Morrell/CBC))

"I believe that young Canadians can make a significant contribution to Canada's democracy," said Marc Mayrand.

The chief electoral officer says young people are less likely to vote because they often feel less informed about the issues and the process and believe political parties don't speak to them.

"I think in many ways it's a vicious cycle," said Schwartz. "Because young people don't vote, politicians don't feel the need to include issues that are important to students in their platforms. And because those issues aren't in their platforms, young people feel less of a need to vote."

Studies show that while lower voter turnout is typical among young people, a troubling trend shows that increasingly voters are waiting until later and later in life to enter the electorate, lowering overall voter turnout. Canada hit a historic low of 58.8 per cent of registered voters casting ballots in the 2008 election.

Need to practise voting: organizer

To reverse that trend, Student Vote organizer Taylor Gunn says it's necessary to use programs like his to teach students how to vote, just as schools would do for any other subject.

"We learn math in school," said Gunn. "We learn spelling and grammar in school. We learn how to get along with others in school."

By the numbers

A few facts about Student Vote in the 2008 election campaign:

  • 503,000 students cast a ballot.
  • More than 3,000 schools participated.
  • 298 of 308 electoral districts had participating schools.
  • Student Vote took place in every province and territory.

"We cannot expect 18 year olds to suddenly on a birth date decide that they are aware, knowledgeable, committed and confident citizens. That's not going to happen."

About 2,750 schools from elementary to high school signed up to take part in Student Vote for the May 2 vote and hundreds of schools continue to sign up each day, said Gunn. He hopes to reach 5,000, or about a third of the schools across the country.

The 41st general election marks the fourth time Elections Canada has worked with the Student Vote program. Each time, the student results accurately predicted the winning party in the official race. As with the official election, the student campaign will heavily involve Twitter and Facebook for the first time.

Student voting takes place the week before the official May 2 vote, but results are timed for release on election day to coincide with official results.

While Schwartz is excited about casting his ballot in the mock election, he's also preoccupied with reaching a milestone after his birthday in June: participating in his first real election. Ontario's provincial vote is scheduled for Oct. 6.

"I'm quite excited to get to vote for the first time," said Schwartz. "In many ways as an 18-year-old the provincial [election], which is in charge of education, affects me a lot so I'm trying to pay attention to that as well."