Lower voter turnout as campuses feel the loss of special polling locations

Graphic by Sarah Morassutti

After suspending the Vote on Campus program, Elections Canada is reporting a five per cent decrease in voter turnout for the 2021 federal election. Although the voter turnout rate represents the general population, a lower youth voter turnout is also assumed. 

According to the Elections Canada website, the Vote on Campus program began as a pilot project in the 2015 federal election. Temporary voting offices were opened in 39 post-secondary campuses across the country, allowing students to register and vote by special ballot as well as update their information on the list of electors. In the 2019 federal election, the Vote on Campus program was expanded to 121 offices at 109 post-secondary campuses across 86 electoral districts. 

According to a CBC article, the decision to suspend the Vote on Campus program was made in the fall of 2020, mainly due to challenges posed by the pandemic as well as uncertainty regarding whether students would be on campus for the foreseeable future. 

The Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA) is a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization that is advocating for the return of the Vote on Campus program. CASA is composed of student associations from across Canada, representing 275,000 undergraduate, graduate and polytechnic students.

According to CASA board member Marley Gillies, the cancellation of the Vote on Campus program made it more difficult for post-secondary students to vote.

  “The cancellation of the Vote on Campus program did create new barriers for students, a demographic that already faces many barriers while voting such as frequent address changes and riding confusion, as well as motivational barriers surrounding a lack of knowledge or interest in the electoral process,” Gillies explained.

Gillies stressed that the student vote is important and that voting is one of the best ways students can make their voices heard.

“Recognizing that mail-in voting is an insufficient replacement for the Vote on Campus special ballot process, CASA will continue to tirelessly advocate for the return of the Vote on Campus program,” Gillies said. 

Gillies mentioned that ahead of the 2021 federal election, CASA ran a Get Out The Vote campaign to encourage students to vote.

“This is achieved by collecting, distributing, and promoting information directing students on how, when and where to vote,” Gillies explained.

Gillies said that the 2021 Get Out The Vote campaign revolved almost entirely around addressing the barriers caused by the pandemic and encouraging students to make use of the mail-in voting system.

“Without Vote on Campus, many students were pushed toward voting at regular advance or election day polling stations, which required them to provide proof that they lived in the riding they reside in to attend school.  Not having a government ID with their temporary address, students were forced into complex ID or vouching requirements that made the entire voting process needlessly complex and time consuming,” Gillies said. 

Gillies also noted that some of their members had complaints regarding mail-in ballots arriving late, and they were unable to send them to Elections Canada in time for their vote to be counted. This ended up being a major barrier to voting in the 2021 federal election.

“To vote in their home riding, students could cast their ballots by mail or vote by special ballot at an Elections Canada office. If students wished to vote in the riding they live in during the school year, they could vote at advance polls or on election day, provided they could show proper identification,” Gillies said. 

Gillies encouraged post-secondary students who were concerned about voting accessibility to contact Elections Canada and to let them know that the Vote on Campus program needs to be reinstated to ensure that future federal elections make voting easier for post-secondary students.