On-campus voting will be more complicated for Dalhousie University students who don’t permanently reside in the Halifax riding this year. The Vote on Campus Program, which was started by Elections Canada in 2015, won’t be happening in 2021. The program allowed post-secondary students to vote in their home ridings from poll booths on their school’s campuses.
Dalhousie University’s Student Union Building (SUB) will host a voting booth on Sept. 20, but students who aren’t permanent residents of the Halifax riding won’t be able to use it without a piece of ID that states they live in Halifax, according to Dalhousie Student Union President Madeleine Stinson. But even with the proper identification, students will only be able to use this polling station to vote in the Halifax riding, not those they consider home. The full list of accepted ID can be found on the Elections Canada website.
In 2019, Dalhousie University had the highest turnout of the schools in this program with 2,236 ballots cast from campus, Elections Canada’s regional media advisor for the Atlantic Provinces, Francois Enguehard, said in an interview with the Dalhousie Gazette.
Despite the disappointment of students, Enguehard said Elections Canada has made their decision, “we understand students are frustrated, but planning an election during a minority government is a difficult thing, and we’ve never planned an election in a pandemic,” Enguehard said.
Students demand campus polls
Many students across the country are unhappy with this decision. At the time of writing, over 20,000 students have signed a petition on Change.org to open the special campus voting booths this September.
“I was appalled and frustrated to hear that the Vote on Campus program was being cancelled. Part of the reason I was so shocked is because the program was so successful in raising the youth vote in the last two elections,” the petition’s creator, second-year English student at the University of British Columbia (UBC), Esmé Decker, said in an interview with the Gazette.
The 2015 federal election, when the Vote on Campus program started, saw the largest increase in voters aged 18 to 24 since data collection began in 2004, according to Elections Canada’s youth voting trends page.
Decker also worked at UBC’s campus polls during the last federal election. “I hope elections Canada sees how much the vote on campus means to us. They should always be prepared to open polls on campus for future elections if not this one,” he said.
President of the University of King’s College’s King’s Students’ Union (KSU) Nick Harris is also disappointed in the suspension of campus polls. “They basically scrapped it because it was too much work,” he said. “The job of Elections Canada is to turn out the vote, and not only that but to make voting as simple and efficient as possible. At the end of the day, this is going to make sure less students are out there voting. If there was a will to do it, it would be done,” he said.
Harris worked at the Dalhousie campus poll booths in 2019. Harris is a fourth-year student in the contemporary studies program at King’s, but it was a political science course at Dalhousie that inspired him to take the poll booth job.
“I learned how efficient and safe Canada’s election system is. We have one of the best election systems in the world. It really is efficient. Literally anyone with the proper training can run an election,” said Harris.
Elections Canada’s explanation and student response
The combination of the pandemic and the suddenness of the snap election is Elections Canada’s explanation for pulling the program, according to Enguehard. “The Vote on Campus program was first introduced in a majority government context with the goal of reducing the barriers faced by students. It has never been delivered in a minority government context, where no clear dates can be provided to campus administrators,” said Enguehard.
Decker takes issue with this explanation. “In a way, I can understand that everyone has a hard time working under a time crunch, I worked for Elections Canada in 2019 so I saw a lot of the logistics. At the same time, it is very quick to train the poll workers, my training was only about three hours,” he said.
Decker also said there are some inconsistencies in Elections Canada’s planning, “In the pandemic, they’re able to run polling stations in long-term care facilities. It should be easier to run booths on campus because in these care facilities there are even more safety concerns.
“It’s frustrating that they would take away this program when they know this demographic needs as much support as possible,” Decker said.
Lisa Roberts, the NDP candidate for the Halifax riding, expressed concern about the lack of campus polls. “I actually feel like an election without student vote is deeply problematic for democracy,” said Roberts.
Roberts said the Liberal Party of Canada’s call for an election on such short notice may deter voting in general. “It feels to me like a very poor time for an election if we want widespread engagement by the voters,” Roberts said.
Andy Fillmore, the current Liberal MP for Halifax, is “disappointed” by the lack of campus polls, but defends the timing of the election. “It was the election being called on short notice, which, you know, happens. More than half of Canadian elections are called in short notice.”
Green Party of Canada candidate Jo-Anne Roberts is also frustrated with the situation. “We just feel that that is an assault on our democracy. And students, I hope, will find a way to either vote by mail or vote in advance polls or tie up the system so that they don’t let the powers let this happen,” she said. “You know, we talk a lot about voter suppression in the [United States of America]. This is voter suppression.”
Is this voter suppression?
The suspension of the program is “suspicious,” Decker said.
“Some people have definitely said this is a kind of voter suppression, and it kind of is. It makes it harder for students to vote who already have very busy schedules,” said Decker.
“Youth voters tend to vote more progressively. Youth voting blocks tend to be more ethno-diverse. Elections Canada has this information. It is really disappointing and a little suspicious to see the youth vote is being made less of a priority than, once again, long-term care facilities,” he said. “Elderly people already vote way more than youth in Canada. Elections Canada knows youth are a demographic they should prioritize.”
Decker said Elections Canada isn’t entirely to blame, but the Liberals calling a snap election –– campaigning is taking place over a 36 day election period, the minimum length of a federal campaign under Canadian law –– keeps elections Canada from implementing every program.
Harris raised similar concerns. “Taking any steps that make it harder for someone to vote, that is inherently voter suppression,” he said.
“To me, Trudeau came into power in 2015 because of young people. I think in a large part young people turned out again in 2019. Polls are suggesting there has been a flip towards the New Democratic Party amongst young people,” said Harris.
Amongst voters 18-34, NDP poll ahead of all other parties according to 338 Canada, a poll analysis website.
“Young people don’t have the highest voter turnout, if this is actually a problem that Canadian society wants to tackle they need to take steps to do that,” said Harris.
Where to vote now.
One of the barriers facing student voters is confusion surrounding ridings. Many students want to vote in ridings in their home provinces. The Vote on Campus program allowed them to do this from a booth. Now, students hoping to vote at home must vote by special ballot via mail.
Enguehard also said elections Canada encourages students to vote early, “voting early by special ballot also preserves students’ ability to cast a ballot in the riding they consider home, even if they’re living outside that riding while they study.”
Voters must apply to vote by special ballot at advanced polls by Sept. 14, Elections Canada said there will be three advanced polling stations around Dalhousie – two within 500 meters and one at a distance of one kilometre.
Students can also vote in their university’s riding simply by showing two pieces of ID, one of which must contain their current address. Students can find their closest poll booths on the voter information page of Elections Canada’s website.
Harris said he and the KSU encourage everyone to get out and vote, early or not. “There are issues at the table here that are going to affect young people for the rest of our lives, whether that’s climate change, whether that’s free and accessible post-secondary education, whether that’s tackling a pandemic in the best way possible so we can return to a new normal,” he said.
“Historically young people have not had the best voting record, I hope folks realize how much is on the table and I hope everyone votes, and I trust they will.”