Student voters decry suspension of Vote on Campus program

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Elections Canada polling station signs in the Dalhousie University student union building during the 2019 federal election. Image: Cold, Indrid/Flickr

In an act that some students are calling voter suppression, Elections Canada announced last week it has suspended its "Vote on Campus" campaign for the upcoming federal election.

Citing the pandemic and "the minority government situation" -- understood to mean the lack of official lead-time in this premature, snap election -- voters won't be able to access on-campus polling stations to cast their ballots.

For Alannah McKay, National Chairperson for the Canadian Federation of Students, the move is frustrating, particularly for students who study outside their constituency who planned to vote in their home riding.

The Canadian Federation of Students, which represents more than 500,000 students across Canada, is running a "Generation Vote" campaign in an effort to preserve as much voter engagement on campus as possible.

Their website includes information on how to vote, including details for disability accommodations or voting without a fixed address.

McKay called the decision to suspend the program concerning, adding that the loss of on-campus polls means voting won't be accessible for all students across the country.

"There's just this assumption [from Elections Canada] that all students have homes to go back to," McKay said, noting that barriers facing the most marginalized student voters have been overlooked.

Elections Canada said it was able to extend the program in 2019 because that election had a fixed date. That year, more than 110,000 ballots were cast on campuses; nearly four in ten students voted on campus as part of the program.

In an emailed statement, the organization told it decided not to proceed with the initiative in the fall of 2020 when university campuses were, for the most part, closed to in-person learning. 

Elections Canada said it revisited their decision in July as it became clear most postsecondary institutions would be reopening for the fall semester.

"When the snap election was called for Sept 20, there was not enough time for this to happen," the statement from Elections Canada said.

Patricia McGrail, a former representative for the Council of Canadians' "Go Vote" campaign, spent a week in Mississauga in 2015 encouraging students to vote on campus. She said some students suspected she was waging a "left wing campaign" despite her organization being strictly non-partisan. After a week of tabling, McGrail's space was given to someone else.

McGrail tried tabling at Sheridan College as well, to no avail. She believes pushback from some university administrations and student unions is part of the reason the Vote on Campus program isn't being offered this time around.

"This is an important election for young people as the climate crisis threatens their futures.  Every effort must be made to encourage them to vote," McGrail said, adding, "Elections Canada needs to make Vote on Campus a priority and not fold at the slightest resistance."

The benefit of polls on campuses

First introduced as a pilot project in 2015, the Vote on Campus campaign sought to increase voter participation among youth while providing an accessible option to vote, particularly for those studying out-of-province.

A survey of the project's campaign in the 2019 federal election showed "approximately one-fifth (18 per cent) of respondents said that they would not have voted if campus voting had not been available."

After seeing a nearly 20 per cent increase in the student and youth vote in the 2015 election, the number of on-campus polling stations jumped from 70 to 115 in 2019. That federal election marked the first time in over 50 years that students and youth made up the largest voting bloc in Canada.

Previously, special-ballot polling was also available on university and college campuses, providing youth and students with an opportunity for early voting.

Whose votes matter

McKay worries the lack of on-campus polling will lead students and youth to believe their votes don't matter. It doesn't help, she said, that parties aren't prioritizing campaign platforms that benefit youth and students.

"They should have put more forethought preparing for this," McKay said, adding that focusing on subsequent election programs rather than the current election is ensuring "certain voices will be shut out."

In the United States, the student vote doubled between the midterms in 2014 and 2018, leading to Republican efforts to suppress the student vote in red states in 2020 by introducing laws that lead to the closure of on-campus poll stations.

In Canada, after the Vote on Campus program was introduced in 2015, voter turnout of those aged 18-24 jumped to 57 per cent, compared to less than 39 per cent in 2011.

Alexa Ballis, president of the University of Toronto student union, said she's disappointed by the move and so are many of her peers.

"The whole semester is very much up in the air and already stressful," Ballis said.

She said it's strange there are no polling stations on-campus considering most post-secondary institutions have already implemented vaccination requirements.

"If it's safe enough to have classes without social distancing, I'm surprised it's not safe enough to be able to vote," Ballis said, though Elections Canada have said it’s a logistics issue rather than health and safety. "It is such an important program, and it really shows that it's important that students vote."

How to vote if you're a student

Elections Canada said returning officers have been working to locate polling places close to campus for students, though it's unclear how that partnership is working.

While the organization said it will not be reevaluating the Vote on Campus program for this election, they are committed to providing polling stations on campus in subsequent federal elections.

"We believe that voting will still be convenient for students, especially given recent improvements to the vote-by-mail system," Elections Canada said.

"For example, any elector may now apply online to vote by mail and receive a voting kit that includes a pre-addressed return envelope with pre-paid postage."

Students can also apply for a special ballot at an Elections Canada office ahead of the September 14 deadline.

Stephen Wentzell is's national politics reporter, a cat-dad to Benson, and a Real Housewives fanatic. Based in Halifax, he writes solutions-based, people-centred stories. Have a national politics story that needs attention? Contact him with story leads at [email protected]

Image: Cold, Indrid/Flickr

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